What is coronavirus?
It is a novel coronavirus (nCov)– that is to say, a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals.
Coronaviruses are “large family of viruses that was first identified in humans in the mid-1960s”. While some of these viruses cause common cold, others “found in bats, camels and other animals can evolve into more severe illnesses” such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). The virus gets its name from the Latin ‘corona’ (halo or crown) as it resembles one when viewed under an electron microscope.
What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?
The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. Coughing or sneezing, or touching an infected person can spread the coronavirus. A running nose, headache, cough and fever are some of the common symptoms.
In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health and immune system.
How did it spread?
Many of those infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city, which also sold live and newly slaughtered animals. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.
Hence, it is a possibility that the infected people caught the virus from animals at a seafood market, where some of the infected patients ran businesses.
The (nCoV) is a new virus strain that has not been previously identified in humans, which are believed to be transmitted from animals to people. The first case was identified in China’s Wuhan on 31st December.
What other coronaviruses have there been?
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.
Although Mers is believed to be transmitted to humans from dromedaries, the original hosts for both coronaviruses were probably bats. There are suspicions now that the new coronavirus may have originated in bats or snakes, and possibly then was transmitted to humans via an intermediary species.
In 2002 Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.
Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?
Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of 24 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged more than 1,000 cases and 41 deaths.
To what extent it has spread?
In the past week, the number of confirmed infections has more than tripled and cases have been found in 13 provinces, as well as the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin.
The virus has also been confirmed outside of China, in Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam. There have not been any confirmed cases in the UK at present, with the 14 people tested for the virus all proving negative.
The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by WHO experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be 4,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 1,000 and 9,700.
Is there any vaccine available for the nCov?
A crucial difference is that unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. One sensible step to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.
What has been China’s reaction to the outbreak?
As part of measures to contain the outbreak, China has restricted travel for over 35 million of its citizens, just ahead of China’s busiest travel season of the Lunar New Year holiday. People in Wuhan city are being encouraged to wear surgical masks in public.
How has the nCov outbreak impacted India and what are the measures taken by the authorities?
India intensified measures to check passengers for life —threatening coronavirus even as three people— who had recently traveled to China— were hospitalized in the country with symptoms resembling the disease.
The government’s concerns over the virus are increasing as Wuhan in China, the epicenter of the virus outbreak, houses a large number of Indians particularly students at different Chinese universities. According to estimates, around 23,000 Indian students are studying in China a considerable number of them in Wuhan medical University.
“Ministry of External Affairs is disseminating travel advisory (in local languages) to Indian Embassies in China and adjoining countries for wider circulation and passenger information," the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Passengers are now being screened at 12 more airports in the country besides seven were preventive measure were launched earlier this week.
Following an advisory by the World Health Organization (WHO), India on Friday screened 4082 passengers in 19 flights for Coronavirus symptoms. Until now, 20,844 passengers from 96 flights have been screened.
How worried are the experts?
There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.
At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with the flu. A key concern is the range of severity of symptoms – some people appear to suffer only mild illness while others are becoming severely ill. This makes it more difficult to establish the true numbers infected and the extent of transmission between people. But the authorities will be keen to stop the spread and will be anxious that the virus could become more potent than it appears.
Should we panic?
No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening.
The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.
Healthcare workers could be at risk if they unexpectedly came across someone with respiratory symptoms who had travelled to an affected region. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.
What is China’s history with Coronavirus?
In 2002, a severe SARS epidemic broke out in Guangdong Province in China. The epidemic reached its peak in the first week of February 2003. Over 8,000 people were infected in 37 countries before the situation was brought under control. Nearly 800 people died.