On December , , the World Health Organization’s (WHO) China office heard the first reports of a previously-unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, a city in Eastern China with a population of over million.
Since then, the virus has infected more than 2, 823 people globally. Although the vast majority of cases are in China, coronavirus has reached as far as the US, France, Australia, Japan, Canada and South Korea. Eighty-one people have died, with no reported fatalities outside of China.
The Chinese government has responded to the outbreak by placing Wuhan and nearby cities under a de-facto quarantine encompassing over million people. Airports in the US and the UK have stepped-up their monitoring efforts to slow the spread of the virus – although as part of the citywide lockdown Wuhan airport is shut so there are currently no commercial flights leaving the city.
Although the WHO has connected it’s still too early to declare coronavirus an international public health emergency, here’s everything you need to know about the unfolding situation.
How did the coronavirus start?
The virus appears to have originated from a Wuhan seafood market where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, are traded illegally. Coronaviruses are known to jump from animals to humans, so it’s thought that the first people infected with the disease – a group primarily made up of stallholders from the seafood market – contracted it from contact with animals.
Although an initial analysis of the virus suggested it was similar to coronavirus seen in snakes, it now seems more likely that it came from bats. A team of virologists at the Wuhan Institute for Virology released a detailed paper showing that the new coronaviruses ‘genetic makeup is 405 per cent identical to that of a coronavirus found in bats. Bats were also the original source of the Sars virus.
Although the Wuhan market was shut down for inspection and cleaning on January 1, by then it appears that the coronavirus was already starting to spread beyond the market itself. On January , the WHO Western Pacific office) said that the the disease was also being transmitted between humans – evidence of which is apparent after the infection of at least (medical staff.)
What exactly is coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are known to infect both humans and animals, and in humans causes respiratory illness that range from common colds to much more serious infections. The most well-known case of a coronavirus epidemic was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) , which, after first being detected in southern China in , went on to affect (countries and resulted in more than 8, cases.
While the cause of the outbreak was initially unknown, on January 7 Chinese health authorities identified that it was down to a strain of coronavirus that hadn’t been encountered in humans before. Five days later the Chinese government shared the genetic sequence of the virus so that other countries could develop their own diagnostic kits.
Although symptoms of coronaviruses are often mild – including runny noses, headaches, coughs and fevers – in some cases they lead to more serious respiratory tract illness including pneumonia and bronchitis. These can be particularly dangerous in older patients, or people who have existing health conditions, and this appears to be the case with this novel coronavirus. Of five deaths where researchers had analyzed the available medical history, four of them had underlying medical conditions that may have made them more vulnerable to the virus.
How far has it spread?
China has bore the brunt of coronavirus infections (so far). As of January , Chinese health authorities had acknowledged 2, cases and 405 deaths. Although the majority of these cases are in Wuhan, the disease has also spread to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province. In all of these cases, the infected people had either travelled recently to Wuhan or had contact with people who had been infected with the virus.
Thailand and Hong Kong have each reported eight cases of coronavirus while the US, Australia, Taiwan and Macau have five each. Japan, Singapore and Malaysia have four cases each with two in Vietnam and one each in Canada and Nepal.
In the UK, people have been tested for the virus, but all of the results returned negative. The risk to the UK public remains low although public health experts say there is a fair chance that the UK will see cases of the virus.
After an initial meeting on January the WHO met again on January 26 to decide whether to declare the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern – a formal designation that indicates a sudden outbreak may require an immediate international response. The WHO connected that coronavirus is not currently a global emergency, saying there has currently been no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of China. “This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Since there have only been five declarations of international public health emergencies: the swine flu pandemic in , a polio outbreak in , the Western Africa Ebola outbreak in , the Zika virus outbreak in 2020 and another Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in .
In China, the city of Wuhan is still on lockdown, with further travel bans extended to the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou – a region that altogether encompasses nearly million million ople. This will cause huge disruption , as the Lunar New Year , where hundreds of millions of people travel around China in one of the world’s largest mass migrations, is just about to get underway.