The number of people infected with a mysterious new virus strain has skyrocketed over the weekend, with a sudden rise of cases being reported in China and beyond.
Three people are confirmed to have died as a result of the illness, all of whom were from the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have originated.
At least 198 cases of the so-called novel Coronavirus have been reported in Wuhan since the outbreak was first reported in December, according to the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee. On top of that, cases have also been reported in Beijing, Guangdong, and Zhejiang provinces, as well as other isolated cases in nearby Asian countries, including South Korea, Japan, and Thailand.
However, the real numbers could be far greater than the official figures. One report by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London suggested that there could be approximately 1,723 cases or more of the virus in Wuhan city alone.
The first cases emerged in December 2019 among people who work at the South China Seafood City market in Wuhan. The virus affects the respiratory system, causing symptoms such as fever, coughs, breathing difficulties, and pneumonia. Although it was initially unclear what exactly was causing the illness, health authorities in China have identified the infection has a novel strain of Coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV.
Coronaviruses are a broad group of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). It’s also the same family of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a respiratory illness that started in China in 2002 and went on to kill over 774 people around the world, primarily in Asia. While much has changed in terms of public health in China since the SARS outbreak, there are some parallels between the two epidemics.
It’s feared that the worst is yet to come too. China is gearing up for the lunar new year on January 25, when millions of Chinese citizens are expected to travel domestically and internationally. The celebrations will also see many public gatherings, which could further aid the transmission of the virus.
It was previously unclear whether the virus could spread through human-to-human transmission since many of the early cases were linked to animals at the food market in Wuhan. However, Chinese government officials have just confirmed the first cases of human-to-human transmission after a number of medical workers have tested positive for the virus.
“Uncertainty and gaps remain, but it’s clear that there is some level of person to person transmission,” commented Dr Jeremy Farrar, a British medical researcher and Director of Wellcome Trust.
“The speed with which this virus has been identified and the sharing of that information by China, has been amazing, a testament to the changes in public health in China since SARS and the global coordination through the World Health Organisation,” he added.
“But we must not be complacent… There is more to come from this epidemic.”