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China’s coronavirus outbreak: What you need to know about the ‘Wuhan virus’

Chinese authorities are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of a mystery virus that has already claimed more than a dozen lives, with researchers fearing that the total number of cases could be in the thousands.

But what is a coronavirus – and what traits does this one have? How easily does it spread? And should you be worried about jetting off to East Asia right now?

Here’s what you need to know.

Image: The new virus originated in the city of Wuhan

What is a coronavirus?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes coronaviruses as a large family of viruses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002/03 outbreak that also started in China.


When a new strain emerges that has not yet been identified, as is the case with the current outbreak in China, it temporarily becomes known as a novel coronavirus (nCoV).

The current outbreak has been dubbed the “Wuhan virus” by some in China, named after the city where the first report emerged earlier this month.

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All coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.

Christopher Coleman, assistant professor of infection immunology at Nottingham University, told Sky News: “They get their name because under the electron microscope there’s a bright run around the central core of the virus, like the sun essentially.”

Image: The current strain has not yet been identified

What are the symptoms?

There are a number of common signs that you may be infected, most of which are respiratory such as experiencing breathing difficulties, shortness of breath and having a cough.

You may have a fever.

More serious cases could lead to potentially deadly conditions such as pneumonia and kidney failure, with the former having been reported among some patients in China at the moment.

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Does the current outbreak have any specific traits?

Since first being reported in the city of Wuhan, where it is believed to have originated at a seafood market, the virus has not provoked unusual symptoms in people who have been diagnosed.

Doctors have seen fever, coughing and breathing difficulties, which are all to be expected.

What remains unknown is how exactly this nCoV came about and how easily it could spread, with researchers at Imperial College London suggesting there could be more than 1,700 cases in Wuhan alone.

Professor Coleman told Sky News: “It must be something new, because if it was SARS then they would have identified it quite quickly.”

Image: Wuhan authorities are working to stop the virus spreading

Should you be concerned about travelling?

There is no sign yet as to how easily this nCoV can be transmitted between humans but the UK Foreign Office has advised Britons against all but essential travel to Wuhan.

China has so far confirmed more than 500 cases of the nCoV – and there have also been cases in Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The US has also diagnosed its first case.

Major airports in the US, Singapore and London Heathrow are among those who are monitoring people arriving from Wuhan for signs of illness.

The risk to the UK population has been raised from very low to low, according to Public Health England, which says the country is “well prepared for new diseases”.

Image: The cause of the virus has not yet been established

What is China doing about it?

Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to tackle the spread of the virus, saying: “People’s lives and health should be given top priority and the spread of the outbreak should be resolutely curbed.”

Wuhan’s local transport networks – including bus, subway and ferries – are to be suspended from 10am on 23 January, and airport and train stations closed to outgoing passengers.

Authorities are asking citizens not to leave the city unless there are special circumstances.

With hundreds of millions of Chinese people set to travel for the lunar new year, transport hubs in major cities may begin screening anyone who leaves.

Professor Coleman told Sky News: “I would expect the Chinese authorities to try and quarantine people who are confirmed, as that would be normal for any suspected serious virus.

“We can’t be sure that it is serious at this stage, but as it’s a new virus they would probably overdo it to be sure that people that were confirmed cases were isolated.”

Image: Passengers arrive in Beijing for the of lunar new year

When has something like this happened before?

The 2003 outbreak of SARS killed 774 people across dozens of countries, mostly in Asia, and the current outbreak is considered to be more closely related to that virus than any other.

Another prominent coronavirus to emerge since the turn of the century is Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since killed more than 800 people.

The WHO says humans are mostly infected through direct or indirect contact with infected dromedary camels, and human-to-human transmission is rare.

Professor Coleman was involved in some of the first research into MERS in the US.

He told Sky News: “SARS and MERS are the two severe coronaviruses. There are four that are very mild that people can get very regularly.”

Image: Families leave the Wuhan Medical Treatment Centre

How can you protect yourself from coronaviruses?

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, says it is important that you keep up basic hand and respiratory hygiene, such as washing your hands with soap and water and sneezing into you elbow or a tissue.

“Ways to protect yourself against a potential animal source would be to avoid unnecessary contact with live animals and make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly after contact with an animal,” she adds.

“And also to make sure that your meat is cooked thoroughly before consuming.”

Image: Many are wearing masks to protect themselves

Can you be treated?

Unfortunately there are no reliable vaccines available to rid your body of a coronavirus.

The best you can do is take medicines and treatments for specific symptoms.

Professor Coleman told Sky News: “Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no specific therapeutics that can be used against the coronavirus.

“Standard respiratory support therapies are used to treat the symptoms and wait for the virus to be cleared by itself.”


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