On Monday, January 20, Chinese authorities confirmed that a new coronavirus strain is spreading through human-to-human transmission. Officials are concerned over the sharp increase in the number of confirmed cases.
Over 200 people have been diagnosed with the virus so far, officials say. Health experts believe the virus likely originated from human contact with an unidentified animal species at a market in Wuhan, a city in central China.
Despite the relatively modest number of official cases, scientists at the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (MRC GIDA) at Imperial College London claim the number of infected persons in Wuhan could be as high as 1,700.
Four people have died in Wuhan thus far due to the virus. Confirmed cases of the disease have been found in other locations as well, including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong. South Korea, Japan and Thailand have also reported cases from passengers traveling from China.
What is coronavirus?
On Wednesday, January 22, the World Health Organization (WHO) will meet to determine whether the outbreak should be labeled “a public health emergency of international concern” – a designation only used for the most serious global epidemics.
Coronavirus is a large family of viruses that can affect both animals and humans. In its most severe form, it can cause acute respiratory problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. Often transmitted to humans through animals, it spreads through the air, through close personal contact or by touching contaminated objects.
The new strain of coronavirus found in China is closely related to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 – 2003 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) virus first identified in 2012.
Both these viruses were associated with severe outbreaks that spread across their respective regions. SARS killed some 800 people and MERS resulted in the deaths of approximately 850.
There are no vaccines or antiviral drugs available to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but symptoms can be treated.
On January 25, the Chinese New Year is set to get underway. The holiday, which celebrates the beginning of the new year according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, is one of the biggest annual celebrations in China.
The sharp rise in new coronavirus cases coincides with this holiday, making increased travel problematic.
Some three billion trips are expected during this year’s holiday. Wuhan, the suspected place of origin of the virus, is a transport hub for travelers. Authorities say they will be screening everyone who leaves the city for travel.