Infectious Diseases

Updated 22 January 2020

Scientists confirm that China’s new SARS-like virus can spread from human to human

If you’ve heard the news about the new mystery virus that is spreading across China, you might be wondering exactly what it is and how it’s happening.

A new coronavirus strain, first discovered in the city of Wuhan, is causing alarm as it shows a connection to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed nearly 650 people across China and Hong Kong in 2002.

What exactly is the coronavirus?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the term coronavirus is used to define a group of viruses that cause illnesses that can range from the common cold to more severe diseases such as SARS.

A new strain (called "novel coronavirus") has been discovered, one that hasn't previously been identified in humans.

When was the new virus discovered? 

The first case of the virus was reported on 9 January 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO) after the WHO China Country office was informed of a case of pneumonia with an unknown cause.

What are the symptoms?

Common signs of coronavirus include classic respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, fever and shortness of breath. In severe cases pneumonia and kidney failure can occur, which can be fatal.

How many people have been infected so far?

The number of people having contracted the new virus stood at 218 on 20 January 2020, according to reports from CCTV. The WHO appointed an emergency committee to discuss the infections.

Cases of the virus were confirmed on Monday in Beijing and Shanghai, while more cases appeared in southern Guangdong province and Wuhan, according to CCTV, the state broadcaster.

So far, four people have died and authorities are scrambling to take precautions as the Lunar New Year brings thousands of tourists to these regions.

How does this virus spread?

Previous strains of coronaviruses were all classified as zoonotic, meaning that they spread from animals to humans. Previously, detailed investigations found that SARS had been spread from civet cats to humans.

In the case of the latest strain, which was provisionally traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, it is equally important to determine exactly how the virus is transmitted. 

Zhong Nanshan, a renowned scientist at the National Health Commission, announced that there is a possibility that patients may contract the virus even without visiting the city.

According to Science Alert, in an interview with CCTV, he said, "Currently, it it is affirmative that there is the phenomenon of human-to-human transmission." 

People in Guangdong who contracted the virus were infected directly by family members who came from Wuhan, he further explained. Fourteen members of a medical team who treated the patients are now also infected.

While Zhong said that there may be an increase of this virus during the Lunar New Year, he is of the opinion that it can be curbed. He added that the WHO panel is meeting in Geneva on 22 January 2020 to decide if the virus should be declared as a “public health emergency of international concern” – a status only used for the worst epidemic scenarios.

What measurements are currently in place to curb the spread?

Since the virus has spread past China’s borders (cases have been recorded in Thailand and Japan), three airports in the USA (San Francisco International Airport, New York’s JFK and Los Angeles’s LAX) and several Asian airports will start screening those who arrive on flights from Wuhan.

According to a report from the BBC, infected people have been treated in isolation to avoid further contamination. The seafood market in Wuhan has also been closed for disinfection.

Should we be worried?

At the time of publishing this article, there are no known cases of the novel coronavirus on the African continent.

Right now, experts reckon it’s hard to tell how far the virus will spread, but authorities are taking action. Meanwhile, if you are travelling to any of the regions affected, the WHO suggests the following:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, especially before handling food, after coughing or sneezing, or after using the bathroom.
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who displays cold or flu-like symptoms.
  • Cook meat and eggs thoroughly.
  • Don’t have unprotected contact with any live wild or farm animals in the affected regions.
  • Visit a medical professional if you are concerned about any symptoms, especially after travelling.

This is a developing story and all numbers mentioned were correct at the time of publication. We will keep up to date with the latest news. 

Image credit: iStock