An unprecedented virus detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan has claimed at least 25 lives and infected hundreds of Chinese citizens with a pneumonia-like disease, according to China's National Health Commission. The virus was first reported to the World Health Organization on December 31and has since been investigated. that include the deadly SARS and respiratory syndrome in the Middle East (MERS).
Scientists have not yet fully understood the destructive potential of the new virus, known as the 2019-nCoV. Researchers and investigators are just beginning to find out where it originated, how it is transmitted and how far it has spread.
As of Thursday, the case had increased to more than 800 in China and abroad. Chinese authorities also confirmed that healthcare professionals have been infected by the virus, suggesting that transmission between people is possible. The authorities are taking steps to protect themselves against its spread. On Thursday, the World Health Organization reintroduced an emergency committee to investigate whether the virus constitutes an acute public health problem. The body decided that is still too early to explain a global emergency.
The situation is developing fast. We've put together everything we know about the mystery virus, what's next for scientists and some of the steps you can take to reduce your risk.
What is a corona virus?
Coronaviruses belong to a family called Coronaviridae, and under an electron microscope they look like spiked rings. They are named for 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 their machinery. The pins on the viral envelope help them bind to cells, giving them a way into. It's like blasting the door with C4. Once inside, they transform the cell into a virus factory and use its molecular conveyor belt to produce more viruses that are then sent out. The virus progeny infects other cells and the cycle restarts.
Usually, these types of viruses are found in animals ranging from livestock to pets to wildlife such as bats. When they jump to humans, they can cause fever, respiratory disease and inflammation in the lungs. In immunocompromised individuals, such as the elderly or people with HIV-AIDS, such viruses can cause severe respiratory disease.
Extremely pathogenic coronaviruses were behind SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS and were readily transmitted from human to human. SARS, which emerged in the early 2000s, infected more than 8,000 people and resulted in nearly 800 deaths. MERS, which emerged in the early 2010s, infected nearly 2,500 people and resulted in more than 850 deaths.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus appears to originate in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, a Chinese city some 650 kilometers south of Beijing, which has a population of more than 11 million people. The market sells fish, as well as a panoply of other animal meats. However, it is still unknown whether the virus originated from an animal species, as SARS and MERS did. The Wuhan market closed on January 1.
Markets have been involved in the origin and spread of viral diseases in previous epidemics, and a large majority of people confirmed to date with this corona virus have been to Huanan Seafood marketplace 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.
On Wednesday, a report in the Journal of Medical Virology suggested a team of Chinese scientist snakes was the most likely animal reservoir for the 2019-nCoV. The work investigated the genetic code of the virus and compared it to two types of snakes, the many banded krait and the Chinese cobra. The research showed that the snake's genetic code showed most similarities to the virus. Other animals known to be sold on the Huanan market (bats, birds, hedgehogs and marmots) were also analyzed but did not show the same level of genetic similarity.
Another study disproved these claims, suggesting that the 2019-nCoV ended up in bats.