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New Coronavirus From China: Everything You Need To Know

A newly identified coronavirus called 2019-nCoV has been spreading in China, and has now reached several other countries. Here's a look at what you need to know.
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⌛ Reading time: 14 minutes

A newly identified coronavirus called 2019-nCoV has been spreading in China, and has now reached several other countries. Here’s a look at what you need to know. 

Update on Tuesday, Jan. 28 (ET):

—There are now nearly 4,515 individuals in China who have been confirmed to have the new coronavirus, according to the official China news agency Xinhua.

—There are now 106 deaths linked to the virus, Xinhua reported. 

—Currently, five individuals in the United States have contracted the virus, all of whom had recently visited Wuhan and returned to Arizona, California (two cases), Illinois (Chicago) and Washington state.

—The CDC announced Tuesday that it recommends that travelers avoid all non-essential travel to all of China due to the virus outbreak.

—The CDC, in conjunction with local and state agencies, is monitoring 110 individuals who could have the infection, from 26 U.S. states, though the center did not say which specific states.

—The Chinese government announced on Sunday (Jan. 26) that it was banning the sale of wildlife at markets, restaurants and online.

—The virus has spread to several countries and cities in addition to China and the U.S., including Hong Kong (eight cases), Thailand (eight), Taiwan (five), Australia (five), Macau (six), Singapore (five), Japan (four), South Korea (four), Malaysia (four), as well as France (three), Canada (one), Vietnam (two), Cambodia (one), Germany (one), Ivory Coast (one), Sri Lanka (one) and Nepal (one), according to the Johns Hopkins University virus dashboard.

—Johns Hopkins University has set up a live dashboard showing the spread of the virus. For more about the dashboard, check out this analysis on our sister site Tom’s Guide.

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?

A representation of a doctor looking for symptoms of the new Wuhan coronovirus in a patient.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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. Sunday evening, the CDC announced two more U.S. cases, one in Los Angeles County, California, and another in Maricopa County, Arizona. Early Saturday, 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?

Map that depicts the spread of the new coronavirus.
(Image credit: CDC)

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 110 people from 26 states for a possible infection with the new virus, officials said Monday (Jan. 27). Thirty-two people under investigation have tested negative for the virus. 

Where did the virus come from?

A new study suggests snakes may be the source of the new coronavirus causing an outbreak in China. Above, an image of Naja atra, a type of snake common in Southeastern China.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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?

A woman walks in front of a closed seafood market in Wuhan, China. Officials believe the market is linked with an outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new virus.
A woman walks in front of a closed seafood market in Wuhan, China. Officials believe the market is linked with an outbreak of pneumonia caused by a new virus.  (Image credit: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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?

coronavirus diagram, showing the virus infecting lungs.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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?

People wear face masks as they wait at Hankou Railway Station on Jan. 22, 2020, in Wuhan, China, where the new coronavirus 2019-nCoV originated.
(Image credit: Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images)

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.

As of now, no instances of human-to-human transmission have been identified in the U.S., CDC officials announced on Jan. 27. An individual’s risk of infection “depends on exposure”; given the low number of confirmed U.S. cases, the CDC has determined that Americans’ risk of 2019-nCoV infection remains “low at this time.”

How does the virus compare to SARS and MERS?

A highly magnified picture of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
(Image credit: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith, Azaibi Tamin)

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. It’s unlikely that imported goods from China could carry the new virus, as coronaviruses don’t typically survive on surfaces for more than a few hours, CDC officials said Jan. 27. 

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?

A thermometer.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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.   

New diagnostic protocols to test for the virus are now available online, and test kits will be distributed to medical centers in the U.S. and abroad sometime in the coming weeks, CDC officials announced on Jan. 27. Within the U.S., the CDC is coordinating with state health departments to determine which patients should undergo diagnostic testing and be placed under surveillance.  

What is being done to stop the spread of the coronavirus?

Health officers screen arriving passengers from China with thermal scanners at Changi International airport in Singapore on Jan. 22, 2020, as authorities increased measures against the spread of the newfound coronavirus.
Health officers screen arriving passengers from China with thermal scanners at Changi International airport in Singapore on Jan. 22, 2020, as authorities increased measures against the spread of the newfound coronavirus. (Image credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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 prior 14 days, the Times said.

Major airports in the U.S. are conducting screenings to try to check for symptoms of the virus. However, there is evidence that the virus can spread before a person shows symptoms. As such, U.S. officials said on Friday (Jan. 24) that they are currently reevaluating the effectiveness of this screening. On Jan. 27, CDC officials said they may consider “broadening” airport screenings and updating their travel recommendations for Americans. “I expect that in the coming days that our travel recommendations will change,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. 

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?

A handshake.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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?

A woman wearing a face mask on a flight.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

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.

Jeanna Bryner, Rachael Rettner, Yasemin Saplakoglu and Nicoletta Lanese contributed reporting.

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