A newly identified coronavirus has been spreading in China, and has now reached several other countries. As the number of confirmed cases and deaths continue to rise, health officials are working on all fronts to learn more about the virus and put measures into place to curtail its spread. Here’s a look at what you need to know about the virus, now called 2019-nCoV.
Update on Sunday, Jan. 26: Two more cases of the new virus have been confirmed as of Sunday night in the United States, bringing the total in the U.S. to five. The additional cases were found in California and Arizona. That number is expected to rise in the coming days and weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The death toll from the virus has risen to at least 80, The New York Times reported. As of Sunday, the total number of confirmed case has reached more than 2,700, according to the Times. In addition to the cases reported in China and the U.S., reports of the infection have been confirmed in Australia, France and several countries in Asia. China has also temporarily banned the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants and online.
See below for up-to-date information on everything you need to know about the spreading coronavirus.
What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause respiratory illnesses such as the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people get infected with coronaviruses at one point in their lives, but symptoms are typically mild to moderate. In some cases, the viruses can cause lower-respiratory tract illnesses such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
These viruses are common amongst animals worldwide, but only a handful of them are known to affect humans. Rarely, coronaviruses can evolve and spread from animals to humans. This is what happened with the coronaviruses known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-Cov), both of which are known to cause more severe symptoms.
How many people have the new virus?
As of Sunday, there are more than 2,700 confirmed cases and at least 80 deaths linked to the 2019-nCoV virus, according to The New York Times. This evening, the CDC announced two more U.S. cases, one in California and another in Arizona. Early, the third person in the U.S., this one in Orange County, California, was reported to have tested positive for the new coronavirus; according to the county health department, the person had traveled from Wuhan and was in “good condition,” the Times reported. The second person in the United States (a woman in Chicago) was confirmed to have the virus on Jan. 24, and the first case was confirmed in a man in Washington state on Jan. 21. So far, all of of the infected individuals in the U.S. had also recently returned from Wuhan.
The first “presumptive” case of the novel virus has been reported in Canada in a man in his 50s who had returned from Wuhan to Toronto, the Times also reported.
How far has the virus spread?
The first cases of the pneumonia-like virus were reported in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019. Since then, the virus has spread to various other countries, including Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the United States, Australia, France, Taiwan, among others. On Saturday (Jan. 25), a “presumptive” case of the virus was reported in Toronto in a man in his 50s who had visited Wuhan, while Portugal’s health ministry says they are watching a patient in Lisbon for the virus; the person also had recently traveled to Wuhan, the Times said.
The first U.S. case was confirmed on Jan. 21 in a man in Washington state who had recently traveled to Wuhan. On Jan. 24, officials confirmed a second case in a woman from Chicago who had also recently traveled to the Chinese city. Both cases were hospitalized, but doing well, officials said. There are now five confirmed cases in the U.S.
The CDC is also investigating more than 60 people in 22 states for a possible infection with the new virus, officials said Friday (Jan. 24). Eleven of those people had tested negative for the virus.
Where did the virus come from?
Since the virus first popped up in Wuhan in people who had visited a local seafood and animal market, officials could only say it likely hopped from an animal to humans. In a new study, however, researchers sequenced the genes of 2019-nCoV (as the virus is now called), and then they compared it with the genetic sequences of more than 200 coronaviruses that infect various animals around the world. Their results, detailed in the Journal of Medical Virology, suggested that 2019-nCoV likely originated in snakes.
As for what kind of snake, the scientists noted there are two snakes that are common to southeastern China where the outbreak originated: the many-banded krait (Bungarus multicinctus) and the Chinese cobra (Naja atra).
However, some experts have criticized the study, saying it’s unclear if coronaviruses can indeed infect snakes.
How did the virus hop from animals to humans?
Some viruses are known to become capable of transmitting to humans, and this coronavirus is one of those. But how? The study published in the Journal of Medical Virology, revealing the likely snake host, also found that a change to one of the viral proteins in 2019-nCoV allows the virus to recognize and bind to receptors on certain host cells. This ability is a critical step to entering cells, and the researchers said that the change in this particular protein may have helped the virus hop to humans.
Can the virus spread between people?
Yes, in limited cases, according to the CDC, but the primary mode of transmission seems to be from animal to human. In terms of how one would catch the virus, the CDC says that human coronaviruses are most commonly spread between an infected person and others via:
—the air (from viral particles from a cough or sneeze);
—close personal contact (touching or shaking hands);
—an object or surface with viral particles on it (then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands);
—and rarely from fecal contamination.
How would this virus cause a pandemic?
In order for this virus, or any, to lead to a pandemic in humans, it needs to do three things: efficiently infect humans, replicate in humans and then spread easily among humans, Live Science previously reported. Right now, the CDC is saying this virus passes between humans in a limited manner, but they are still investigating.
How does the virus compare to SARS and MERS?
MERS and SARS have both been known to cause severe symptoms in people. It’s unclear how the new coronavirus will compare in severity, as it has caused severe symptoms and death in some patients while causing only mild illness in others, according to the CDC. All three of the coronaviruses can be transmitted between humans through close contact.
MERS, which was transmitted from touching infected camels or consuming their meat or milk, was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and has mostly been contained in the Arabian Peninsula, according to NPR. SARS was first reported in 2002 in southern China (no new cases have been reported since 2004) and is thought to have spread from bats that infected civets. The new coronavirus was likely transmitted from touching or eating an infected animal in Wuhan.
During the SARS outbreak, the virus killed about 1 in 10 people who were infected. The death rate from 2019-nCoV isn’t yet known, although most of the patients who have died from the infection have been older than 60 and have had preexisting conditions. However, more recently, a young healthy man died in Wuhan, raising concern that the virus might be more dangerous than thought, according to The Washington Post.
What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus and how do you treat it?
Symptoms of the new coronavirus include fever, cough and difficulty breathing. These symptoms are similar to those caused by SARS, according to a recent study published in the journal The Lancet.
Despite sharing some symptoms that were similar to SARS, there “are some important differences,” such as the absence of upper respiratory tract symptoms like runny nose, sneezing and sore throat and intestinal symptoms like diarrhea, which affected 20% to 25% of SARS patients, lead author Bin Cao, from the China-Japan Friendship Hospital and the Capital Medical University, both in Beijing, said in a statement.
There are no specific treatments for coronavirus infections and most people will recover on their own, according to the CDC. So treatment involves rest and medication to relieve symptoms. A humidifier or hot shower can help to relieve a sore throat and cough. If you are mildly sick, you should drink a lot of fluids and rest but if you are worried about your symptoms, you should see a healthcare provider, they wrote. (This is advice for all coronaviruses, not specifically aimed toward the new virus).
There is no vaccine for the new coronavirus but researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health confirmed they were in preliminary stages of developing one. In addition, the drug company Regeneron announced that it is in the early stages of developing a treatment for this virus, according to NBC News.
What is being done to stop the spread of the coronavirus?
The Chinese government has stopped most of the travel to and from Wuhan as well as 12 other nearby cities, according to The New York Times. This “lockdown” affects about 35 million people, the Times reported. On Sunday, Taiwan’s government announced they would not allow in anyone from the Hubei Province, the Times reported. Also on Sunday, the Hong Kong government announced it would bar from entering the city residents of the Hubei Province or anyone who had visited the province in the past 14 days, the Times said.
Major airports in the U.S. are conducting screenings to make sure incoming passengers aren’t infected. However, U.S. officials said on Friday (Jan. 24) that they are currently reevaluating the effectiveness of this screening. In addition, as of Sunday (Jan. 26), the Chinese government had banned the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants and online.
“The Chinese government’s announcement today to temporarily ban the sale of wildlife in markets, restaurants and over e-commerce needs to be permanent. We congratulate the government for taking this important first step,” Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian at for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said in a WCS statement.
“The banning of such sales will help end the possibility of future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, such as the Wuhan coronavirus. We learned this lesson with the outbreak of another zoonotic disease, SARS, in 2002. The pattern will keep repeating itself until we ban, not only in China, but in other countries, the sale of wildlife, specifically for food and in food markets,” Walzer added.
The CDC also recommends avoiding non-essential travel to Wuhan. On Jan. 23, the U.S. State Department ordered all non-emergency U.S. personnel and family to leave Wuhan, the department said in a statement.
What do we expect in the coming days?
Looking at what happened with MERS and SARS, it’s likely that some spread of the virus from close contact between humans will continue to occur, according to CDC. More cases — possibly including some in the U.S. — will likely be identified in the coming days.
In a statement released on Sunday, the CDC said: “It is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, likely including person-to-person spread. In previous outbreaks with MERS and SARS, the two other coronaviruses that have jumped the species barrier to cause severe illness in people, person-to-person spread has been seen, including among healthcare workers caring for patients ill with coronavirus infection.”
How can people protect themselves and others?
If traveling to Wuhan, you should avoid contact with sick people, avoid dead or alive animals, animal markets or products that come from animals such as uncooked meat, according to the CDC. You should often wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, they wrote. If you are infected by the virus you can take steps to help avoid transmitting it to others such as isolating yourself at home, separating yourself from other people in the house, wearing a face mask, covering your coughs and sneezes and washing your hands, according to the CDC.
People who traveled to Wuhan and became sick with fever, cough or difficulty breathing within the following two weeks should seek medical care right away, and call ahead to inform medical staff about their recent travel.
Rachael Rettner contributed reporting.
Originally published on Live Science.