The spread of China’s coronavirus, which closed a city of 11 million, leaped across continents and raised pandemic fears, may have started with something simple – a person buying food for dinner at an outdoor market.
The potency and movement of the virus has rallied the cooperation of various agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization, which declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on Thursday.
This time, the Chinese are sharing their research with the international scientific community. That’s far different from the way Chinese leaders handled the 2003 outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus. At that time, the government withheld information and received world criticism.
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Seventeen years after SARS, the global community is more tightly connected and interdependent. At stake is not only the health of thousands of people but also significant parts of the world economy, including trade, manufacturing, travel and tourism.
What is the Wuhan coronavirus?
The infection numbers are startling: Since Jan. 20, cases worldwide have surged from 282 to 8,235. The death toll stands at 171, according to Chinese officials.
The current coronavirus doesn’t have an official name yet. The current designation is 2019-nCoV, with 2019 for year of discovery, n for novel (meaning new) and CoV for coronavirus.
How does coronavirus compare to SARS, MERS and the common flu?
Outbreaks like this have happened before, most notably with SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2015.
SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is commonly used as a reference in coronavirus coverage, since both originated in China and share characteristics. In all, 8,098 SARS cases were recorded, with a death toll of 774. That’s a fatality rate of 9.6%.
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MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, originated in Saudi Arabia and resulted in 2,499 cases and 861 deaths, giving it a higher fatality rate of 34.5%.
With current numbers, the fatality rate for 2019-nCoV is 2.4%. The WHO said most coronavirus cases reported to date “have been milder, with about 20% of those infected experiencing severe illness.”
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This is incomparable to this season’s influenza impact. Based on its weekly influenza report, the CDC estimates that there have been more than 15 million cases of the flu and more than 8,200 deaths in the 2019-2020 flu season in the U.S. alone.
“Everybody is being cautious because we’re still learning about it, but right now you’re sitting in the midst of an influenza seasonal busy-ness,” said Dr. David Hooper, chief of the Infection Control Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The risk is much higher for influenza for people in the U.S. than this new coronavirus.”
Is the virus just a problem for China? Are people quarantined?
The WHO classified 2019-nCoV as an emergency for China but hasn’t yet designated it a world-wide emergency.
As infection numbers rise, China has ordered residents in nearly a dozen cities to stay where they are. An estimated 56 million people in the country are affected by lockdowns.
Wuhan has been hardest hit. Airports and railway stations are closed and public transportation halted. Private vehicles are banned. Residents wear face masks to protect against infection. While a new, 1,000-bed hospital is under construction, there are shortages of medicine, protective masks and other supplies.
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Countries with confirmed cases include the U.S., Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam, according to the CDC.
In the U.S., at least six people are known to be infected. Health officials on Thursday reported the first U.S. case of person-to-person spread of the virus – the husband of a Chicago woman who recently came down with the illness after visiting China.
American diplomats are being evacuated from central China to California. Other nations are closely screening travelers returning home from abroad.
Health officials working with the CDC to screen passengers arriving to the U.S. said they’ll be “temporarily housed for a period of time,” but did not say how long the quarantine would last.
When did the outbreak start? Where did coronavirus come from?
According to Chinese officials, 2019-nCoV first appeared Dec. 12 about 700 miles south of Beijing in Wuhan, a city with more people than New York and Chicago combined. Health officials say the outbreak originated at the Huanan Seafood Market.
Huanan Seafood, closed by officials on Jan. 1, was a wet market, one of a series of outdoor stalls selling fish and meat, some of it from wildlife. They are called wet markets because sellers slaughter and cut up animals and fish while customers wait.
The market is suspected because coronaviruses transmit zoonotic diseases, meaning they are transferred from infected animals to humans.
Researchers theorize that someone bought contaminated meat at the market, ate it, got sick and infected others, creating a ripple effect around the world. Bloomberg reported a 61-year-old man, a regular customer of the Huanan market, was the first to die from the virus.
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Not everyone believes the market theory. A Jan. 24 study by the British medical journal The Lancet suggests the outbreak started earlier than December and casts doubt on the market connection.
Pat Lord, teaching professor in the department of biology at Wake Forest University, said this particular outbreak probably came from a virus that originated in bats and another animal, and then transformed to be able to infect human. Health experts have confirmed human-to-human transmission in a number of countries.
Similarly, SARS originated from a fruit bat that was transmitted to civet cats and then eaten as a delicacy in China, Lord said.
“Bats seem to be a reservoir for quite a few viruses, like the rabies, Ebola or the Marburg virus,” she said.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Experts are unsure of whether the virus is able to transmit before symptoms appear or after. If it worsens, it can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or even death.
The virus can be spread from animals to people. But it also can be spread by coughing, sneezing and through close contact with an infected person or an object carrying the virus. Experts are still figuring out how long an infected person is contagious as they try to determine a point of transmission.
Coronaviruses are named after their appearance, round with a series of spikes made of proteins, resulting in a crown-like look. They’re one of many viruses that cause colds and flu.
A new, evolved version, such as 2019-nCov, can cause more serious illnesses, some of which can be deadly to older people or those with weakened immune systems.
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Coronaviruses are found in a variety of animals. If passed from animal to human, the virus can change and infect other humans, who can spread the infection to others, according to the CDC.
Lord said that bats’ evolution has made them become carriers of these diseases without actually getting sick. She thinks they pass around these viruses to each other because they live in such large colonies in relatively small quarters.
Humans are partly to blame for outbreaks as development encroaches on bats’ natural habitats, Lord said. Taking care of the environment to contain bats and keeping live markets clean are two ways humans can work to prevent outbreaks.
“The health of environment, the health of animals and the health of humans are all related,” she said. “We have to think about the whole big picture, we have to protect everything.”
Is there a vaccine for the coronavirus?
There are no drugs or vaccines for coronaviruses yet, including 2019-nCov. Doctors can only treat the symptoms they cause.
However, scientists at The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, say they were able to successfully grow the Wuhan coronavirus in cell culture outside of China for the first time ever.
Dr. Mike Catton, deputy director of the Doherty Institute, said in a statement the breakthrough provides crucial information “to assist in the assessment of effectiveness of trial vaccines.”
According to the South China Morning Post, China might already have a vaccine developed but needs more time to test it. Hong Kong University professor Yuen Kwok-yung told the paper it will take months to test the vaccine on animals and at least another year to conduct clinical trials on humans.
How contagious is the coronavirus?
A virus can linger in the air and infect people for two hours after an infected person leaves the room. How the average infection rate compares with other diseases:
Who is most at risk of getting coronavirus?
Chinese scientists have decoded the 2019-nCoV DNA and made it public. Researchers are analyzing the data in hope of finding a vaccine.
Hooper said that experts are still learning about the virus and information remains limited.
However, he points to elderly and people who are sick with other conditions as a demographic who are over-represented in the coronavirus death toll.
“For those who do have the disease, it seems like the elderly and people with comorbid conditions are more likely to have serious illness,” he said.
Hooper said it’s unknown if women infected with the virus can have complications while pregnant, like the Zika virus, which causes microcephaly and other fetal brain defects.
How can you prevent catching the coronavirus?
Wear a respirator
N95 or higher respirators prevent exposure to small airborne particles and biological aerosols including viruses and bacteria.
Wash your hands
Frequently wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
Avoid large crowds
Being in crowds increases risk of catching a virus.
As there’s no available vaccine, the CDC recommends taking preventative measures to decrease the likelihood of infection:
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Avoid touching the face with unwashed hands
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue to cover it, and throw the tissue away
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
How do doctors treat the coronavirus?
There’s no specific treatment for illnesses caused by human coronaviruses but the CDC recommends taking pain and fever medications, drinking plenty of liquids and staying home to rest.
SOURCE USA TODAY reporting; Johns Hopkins University; World Health Organization; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Food and Drug Administration; Associated Press; Reuters; sciencenews.org \ USA Today, by Adrianna Rodriguez, George Petras, Ramon Padilla, Jim Sergent, and Janet Loehrke