An unprecedented virus, detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has claimed two lives and infected dozens of Chinese citizens with pneumonia-like disease. It was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019 and has been under investigation ever since. WHO indicates that there are still many unknowns, but the same family to which the deadly SARS and MERS viruses belong.
Scientists are yet to fully understand how destructive the new virus, called 2019-nCoV, can be. Researchers and investigators have just begun to understand where it originated, how it is transmitted, how far it has spread and what symptoms patients have.
The good news, for the moment, is the 2019-nCoV does not appear to be very contagious. However, when the cases fall to almost 200 in China and abroad, the authorities are taking steps to protect themselves against its proliferation. Researchers believe the number of cases may be higher than the current reports suggest, and three US airports have begun examining incoming passengers for signs of illness, as well as the busy airports in Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia.
Here's everything we know about the mystery virus right now.
What is a corona virus?
Coronavira belongs to a family of viruses called Coronaviridae and looks like knitted rings under an electron microscope. They are so named because of these nails, which form a halo around their viral envelope.
Coronaviruses contain an RNA strand in their envelope and cannot reproduce without entering living cells and cutting the machinery inside. The nails on their envelopes help them bind to cells, giving them a starting point. Once inside, they transform the cell into a virus factory and use their molecular conveyor belt to produce more viruses and dispatch. The new viruses infect another cell, the cycle begins again.
Usually, these types of viruses are found in animals ranging from livestock to pets and wildlife such as bats. When they jump to humans, they can cause fever, respiratory illness and inflammation in the lungs. In immunocompromised individuals, such as the elderly or people with HIV-AIDS, they can cause severe respiratory disease.
The causative agent for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was extremely pathogenic coronavirus and was readily transmitted from human to human. SARS infected more than 8,000 people and resulted in nearly 800 deaths, MERS nearly 2,500 with over 850 deaths.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus appears to originate in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, a Chinese city with over 11 million people approximately 650 miles south of Beijing. The market sells fish, as well as a panoply of other animal meats. However, it is still unknown whether it originates from an animal species such as previous coronavirus, SARS and MERS.
Markets have been involved in the origin and spread of viral diseases in previous epidemics and a large majority of the cases confirmed so far had been on the Huanan Seafood market in recent weeks. The market appears to be an integrated puzzle piece, but researchers will need to conduct a series of experiments and tests to confirm the origin of the virus.
"Testing of animals in the Wuhan area, including sampling from the markets, will provide more information," said Raina MacIntyre, director of the Biosafety Research Program at the University of New South Wales Kirby Institute.
How many cases have been reported?
As of January 16, 41 cases, of a possible 59, had been confirmed in Wuhan. On January 19, a further case in Shenzhen, China, was confirmed by a 66-year-old man who traveled to Wuhan in December.
A further two cases were confirmed in Thailand and one case was reported in Japan on Jan 17.
Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued a press release on January 18, reporting 17 new cases of the unknown virus. A day later, the Chinese authorities confirmed 136 new cases over Wuhan, Beijing and Shenzhen, totaling 198 confirmed cases. The increase in cases was due to Chinese health agents starting to look for the virus in patients with pneumonia-like symptoms.
The national authorities in China continue to monitor over 800 residents who participated in the Wuhan market or have had long-term contact with those who presented with symptoms of the new disease.
Three deaths have been recorded. The first death occurred in a 61-year-old man who had visited the Wuhan market and had chronic liver disease and stomach tumors. The second death occurred in a 69-year-old man who presented to hospitals with serious damage to several organs.
A study, published by Imperial College London on January 17, estimates the total number of cases in 2019-nCoV may be much higher than reported, with over 1,700 cases. The work, led by Neil Ferguson, calculated how far the virus is likely to spread based on its incubation period and the amount of travel in and out of Wuhan since it was first discovered.
How does the corona virus spread?
This is one of the most important questions researchers are working to get answers to. It is unclear which animals can act as a reservoir for the virus and how much of a role the live animal markets play in its spread. No health officials and carers affected by the disease have been reported, which seems to indicate that transmission between people is limited – but this is still being investigated.
"It does not appear to be very contagious between people at this stage, based on about 60 known symptomatic cases so far," Macintyre said in a statement on January 17.
The market, believed to be the epicenter of the spread, was closed on January 1. World Health Organization has proposed that human-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out at this stage, which may cause some concern for authorities wishing to curb the disease.
What are the symptoms?
The new coronavirus causes similar symptoms to pr identically identified disease-causing coronaviruses. In currently identified patients, there appears to be a spectrum of diseases – a large number are experiencing mild pneumonia-like symptoms, while others have a much more difficult response.
Patients with elevated body temperature and dry cough. Breathing problems occur in progressive disease and can lead to shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Pneumonia, which causes the lungs and causes them to become fluid-filled, has been detected in certain x-rays of patients, according to WHO.
Is there a treatment for coronavirus?
Coronavira are notoriously hardy organisms. They are effective at hiding from the human immune system and we have not developed any reliable treatments for vaccines that can eradicate them. Instead, health officials try to manage the symptoms.
How to reduce the risk of coronavirus
Although no confirmed cases of viruses have been seen outside Asia, there is the potential that it has already spread further and cases may arise in another field. The WHO recommends a series of measures to protect you from the disease based on good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene, in much the same way that you would reduce the risk of getting the flu.
A Twitter thread, developed by WHO, is below.
This entry was originally published on January 19th and is constantly updated as new information becomes available.