The new coronavirus (Covid-19) is spreading fast. More than 98,000 people are known to be infected and over 3,300 deaths have been recorded – including an elderly person in the UK who was diagnosed with the virus.
The bulk of cases and fatalities have been confined to China, but the virus is spreading internationally.
What is coronavirus?
coronaviruses are a family of germs that cause disease in animals. Seven, including the new virus, caused a jump in people, but mostly caused symptoms such as colds.
The other two coronaviruses – the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) – are strongest, having killed more than 1,500 people among them since 2002.
The new virus, officially called Covid-19, is also dangerous. So far, about 20 percent of confirmed cases have been classified as serious or serious, and the death rate stands at about 2 percent.
This is significantly lower than the mortality rates of Mers (30 percent) and Sars (10 percent), but still a high risk.
Scientists in China believe that Covid-19 has evolved into two strains, one more aggressive than the other, which can make vaccination more difficult.
How did the outbreak start?
The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a “wet market” in Wuhan that sells dead and living animals including fish and birds.
Such markets pose a high risk of germs jumping from animals to humans because hygiene standards are difficult to maintain if live animals are kept and removed from the site. Usually, they are also packed.
The animal source of the recent outbreak is still unknown, but the first host is thought to be bats. The members are not sold in the Wuhan market but are likely to infect live poultry or other animals sold there.
Bats are treated to a variety of zoonotic viruses including Ebola, HIV and rabies.
Could the outbreak grow bigger ?
It is impossible to say where the disease will go but, by its current trajectory, it is likely to spread to many countries, affecting many people. The number of cases is starting to decline in China but is increasing worldwide.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the coronavirus usually include:
- A dry cough
- A temperature
- Shortness of breath (in more severe cases)
Some patients may have “aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhea”, the WHO adds. “These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don’t feel unwell”.
These symptoms are similar to other respiratory diseases including flu and the common cold. So if you have symptoms, consider the following:
- Have you travelled to a high risk area such as China, South Korea or Northern Italy in the last two weeks?
- Have you been in close contact with someone with coronavirus
How many people have died from the disease so far?
More than 97,000 cases have been confirmed since the outbreak started, and the death toll has exceeded 3,300. The vast majority of cases are in China, but the virus has spread to more than 80 other countries. According to data from the Chinese authorities, around 80 per cent of cases of the disease are mild, but 20 per cent require hospitalisation.
Is there a cure for the coronavirus?
There is no specific treatment, although doctors are trailling existing drug for viruses such as Ebola and HIV. Early results seem promising but, until full clinical trials have been concluded, doctors cannot be certain that the drugs are effective.
Work to develop a vaccine is accelerating, but this work has been complicated by the virus mutating into a second strain.
How is coronavirus spread?
Like cold and flu bugs, the virus is spread via droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. The droplets land on surfaces and are picked up on the hands of others and spread further. People catch the virus when they touch their infected hands to their mouth, nose or eyes.
It follows that the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself is keep your hands clean by washing them frequently with soap and water or a hand sanitising gel.
Is the coronavirus airborne?
There is some debate about whether the disease is airborne – there is no evidence for it yet, but that could change. Airborne viruses linger for a longer period of time than those spread by droplets and can also be spread in air conditioning and ventilation systems.
The current advice is that the disease can only be spread between close contacts – defined as spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person.
Who started the coronavirus?
Various crazy conspiracy theories have been circulating that the virus somehow escaped from a Chinese lab, either by accident or design. However, this is categorically untrue and scientists studying its genetic code have linked it to bats. It probably then jumped to another animal, which passed it on to humans.
The number of diseases crossing from animals to humans is growing, and teams of virus hunters are tracking them down.
How serious is the disease?
According to data on the first 44,000 cases released by the Chinese authorities, 80 per cent of cases are mild.
In roughly 14 per cent of cases the virus causes severe disease, including pneumonia, and shortness of breath. In about five per cent of patients it is critical, leading to respiratory failure, septic shock and multiple organ failure.
According to the WHO, the death rate in Wuhan is two to four per cent, whereas in the rest of China and the world it is around 0.7 per cent.
It is unclear why the death rate is higher in Wuhan, but it may be because the health services there have been overwhelmed by patients. Men are more likely to have a severe form of the disease, as are people with underlying conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.