Lily McLean, journalist and social director
At a time when the vast majority of people generally partake in celebrations for the Lunar New Year, China is unusually grim. The new strain of coronavirus first originated in the city of Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. This was in late December and early January but as of Wednesday, the virus has spread to fifteen countries, including the United States.
International organizations such as the World Health Organization and teams of medical workers from around the world have gathered in China to assist with efforts to diagnose, treat, and quarantine people suffering from the virus. But supplies are low, and information about the virus and how it spreads is still scarce. Already 170 people have succumbed to the infection.
What is coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are actually a family of viruses named for the crown-like spikes found on them. The coronavirus currently affecting over six thousand people is what is known as a novel coronavirus (one not previously found in humans). The viruses can affect both humans and animals but as of now, there are only seven types known to infect humans. Four types can lead to mild respiratory infections while two others cause far more severe infections. The seventh type is the newest, 2019-nCoV.
Severe Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus are the two more serious types that have led to outbreaks. In 2003, over eight thousand SARS cases were identified while MERS originated in the Arabian Peninsula in 2012 and led to serious outbreaks globally, with the most severe found in South Korea in 2015.
How did this outbreak originate?
Currently, it is suspected that bats carried the coronavirus which has led to this newest outbreak. Bats are notorious in the medical community for being capable of transmitting a wide variety of serious viruses. Scientists have identified a seafood and poultry market in Wuhan as the likely origin of the coronavirus. Living and dead animals for sale there often interacted, making it easy for a virus to spread. The first man to die from coronavirus was frequented the market and often purchased food there.
The symptoms of coronavirus are fairly common in colds; infected people may have runny noses, fevers, coughs, sore throats, or headaches. But in some cases, they may not display any symptoms at all and still be capable of spreading the virus. Very young or old individuals and those with preexisting health conditions are especially vulnerable.
The global situation
The coronavirus has spread from East Asia to infect people in Europe, North America, and the Middle East (cases in the United Arab Emirates were identified Wednesday morning). There are currently four known cases in the United States, with two in California. Arizona, Illinois, and Washington have one each.
Researchers have stressed that the actual number of cases is likely much higher than reported; there could be as many as 26,000 infections in Wuhan alone. A significant concern has arisen over possible shortages of supplies needed to diagnose and treat coronavirus and it’s likely that many people have not yet sought medical attention.
Efforts to quarantine people in China have come under scrutiny, with The Atlantic questioning the ethics of the Chinese government’s choice to quarantine a total of 50 million people. Australian nationals who were visiting China during the outbreak have been evacuated to tiny Christmas Island off the coast of Australia while British nationals returning to the UK will only be allowed to return if they agree to remain quarantined for two weeks.
Despite the rapid spread of coronavirus, the WHO has yet to declare it a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). This is likely related to the complex politics of the outbreak; during the SARS outbreak, China came under international fire for seemingly engaging in a coverup. Now, international efforts to assist China with managing the coronavirus seem to be focused on avoiding any conflict with China.
The World Health Organization is releasing daily reports on the number of cases and the global situation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a wide variety of information on symptoms and prevention of coronavirus.
Image credit:Photo Credit: Content Providers(s): CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy – This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #4814.