The World Health Organization (WHO) is holding an emergency meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to make a fateful decision: Whether to designate the outbreak of a mysterious, pneumonialike virus that originated in China as an international public health emergency.
It’s a scary time for people in China and beyond as the virus and fears of contamination spread. So keep calm and catch up on what we know so far.
– What is a coronavirus?
According to WHO, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that range from the common cold to much more serious diseases. These diseases can infect both humans and animals. The strain spreading in China is related to two other coronaviruses that have caused major outbreaks in recent years: Middle East respiratory syndrome, also known as MERS, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
Symptoms of a coronavirus infection range from respiratory problems, difficulties breathing, fever and cough, to the much more severe cases of pneumonia, kidney failure, acute respiratory syndrome (when fluid builds up in the lungs) and death. The elderly, young and those with an already weakened immune system are at a higher risk of developing severe lower-respiratory tract diseases, like bronchitis and pneumonia, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Health officials haven’t identified this latest strain in humans before. That’s why for now it has the generic name of “a novel coronavirus” while they investigate. As it’s a virus, antibiotics won’t work in treating it.
– How does it spread?
In rare cases, coronaviruses can spread from animals, like camels and bats, to humans. (Household pets are not a threat.) Health officials report that’s what they believe has happened here. In even rarer cases, that same virus can then start to spread from human to human. That’s what happened with MERS and SARS.
WHO officials are investigating whether that’s the case now. But in a worrying development, Chinese officials said Monday that they’ve documented cases of human-to-human transmission.
Chinese health authorities said they first detected the new strain of the virus on Dec. 31 in Wuhan, a city in central China. They initially linked it to a dirty food market where seafood and mammals were sold for human consumption. Officials closed the market the next day. What likely happened, scientists said, is that people ate something infected with the virus and then became sick with it.
The next set of patients are those who reported that they did not come in contact with that market but had gone to other markets, or had contact with others in Wuhan. Chinese officials have documented patients and health-care workers who had no contact with Wuhan, as have authorities in Thailand and Japan.
As The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported from China, “Initially, doctors thought that the virus was not communicable between humans, but cases of infection across the country, including among people who have not been to Wuhan, proved that it can be passed on.”
In cases of human-to-human transmission, the disease can spread through coughing and sneezing, personal contact with an infected person, touching an infected surface and then the mouth, nose or eyes, and, in rare cases, through fecal contamination.
To protect against infection, the CDC recommends basic hygiene techniques like constantly washing hands, staying hydrated, and coughing into one’s arm or a tissue. If there’s a fear of animal transmission, CDC officials urge people to wash hands after contact with animals and thoroughly cook any meat before consumption.
– What do we know about how new cases have spread?
One challenge to investigating – and stopping – the virus is that public health experts say Chinese authorities have not provided information about how the disease is spreading. To control this outbreak, it’s critical to know whether cases being found in other cities are all related to Wuhan. If the disease has been circulating independently in other parts of the country, that information will not only affect how China acts to contain it, but how other public health agencies in the world seek to prevent spread, said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
– Where has it spread?
As of Tuesday afternoon in China, officials there say that six people have died from the virus and 298 people have been confirmed infected. That number is way up from the more than 70 infections reported on Monday.
So far, most cases have been in Wuhan. However, people across 14 provinces in China are being tested for the virus.
On Jan. 13, officials in Thailand confirmed what health officials feared: that a Chinese traveler who came from Wuhan to Thailand was infected. On Jan. 17, Thailand officials announced they had another infected traveler from Wuhan, according to the CDC. On Jan. 15, Japanese officials confirmed their own case of an infected traveler from Wuhan.
“These cases did not report visiting the large seafood and animal market to which many cases in China have been linked,” the CDC reported, raising further concerns among health officials of human-to-human contamination.
Australia and the Philippines are investigating suspected cases.
– What’s being done to stop it?
On Tuesday, Chinese health authorities imposed a quasi-quarantine on Wuhan, which is home to 11 million people. They did so in part because the upcoming Lunar New Year is a time when people often travel to their hometowns. Chinese authorities are already screening people at airports for coronavirus symptoms. Other airports in Asia are doing the same.
Federal health authorities in the United States announced Friday that they’ll immediately begin screening passengers for the virus who are flying into three international airports popular with Chinese travelers – Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York’s John F. Kennedy.
The screening will include taking temperatures; those with high temperatures could be set aside for additional tests. While screening for a common virus usually only takes hours, health authorities told The Post’s Lena Sun that suspected cases could miss their connecting flights as this testing could take up to a day.
– What happened with SARS and MERS?
In November 2002, the SARS epidemic began spreading through China: over eight months it moved to more than two dozen countries, killed 774 people, and infected more than 8,000 people. Health authorities say that the ‘Patient Zero’ came in contact with an animal in China’s Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong.
The virus was finally contained in the summer of 2003. Health care workers made up about 20% of victims in areas heavily hit with the disease, according to WHO. There’s still no cure for the disease, but the initial outbreak was contained by isolating suspected patients and screening passengers traveling from infected areas or those suspected of having symptoms.
One factor hindering initial efforts to contain the virus were the limits on coverage of the epidemic implemented by Chinese authorities.
MERS started spreading in the Middle East in 2012. Scientists say the first infection moved from a camel to human in Saudi Arabia. The disease is associated with the death of 790 people since 2012, the CDC reported in 2018. The outbreak was similarly contained by isolating patients. Health officials also warned against contact with camels and camel meat during the scare.