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Explainer: What is coronavirus and should we be worried?

At present, the new virus appears to be “weaker” than SARS in its current form.

china-coronavirus-outbreak-in-china A child in China wears a facemask amid fears over the coronavirus outbreak. Costfoto / SIPA USA/PA Images Costfoto / SIPA USA/PA Images / SIPA USA/PA Images

CORONAVIRUS – the SARS-like virus that has spread from China to several countries – has caused serious concern among the public and health agencies around the world.

The origin of the global outbreak was in Wuhan in China, which has a population of 11 million people. 

Wuhan is now in lockdown, with at least 10 Chinese cities facing similar measures as part of an unprecedented effort by the government to contain the deadly virus. 

What is coronavirus?

The UN’s health agency says the outbreak of the disease in Wuhan is a never-before-seen strain. It belongs to a broad family of viruses that range from the common cold to more serious illnesses such as SARS.

According to Arnaud Fontanet, head of the department of epidemiology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, the new strain is the seventh known type of coronavirus that humans can contract.

“We think that the source may have been animals sold at market and from there it passed to the human population,” he said. 

The World Health Organisation says an “animal source seems the most likely primary source… with some limited human-to-human transmission occurring between close contacts”.

The outbreak has caused alarm because of the link with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003.

Fontanet said the current virus strain was 80% genetically identical to SARS, which also causes severe breathing problems.

The official death toll in China has risen to 25 with more than 830 confirmed cases.

Has it spread?

There are confirmed cases in several countries outside of China, including two cases in Japan, three in Singapore and one in the US. 

Nine people in the UK are awaiting tests for coronavirus. 

Yesterday, it was reported that one patient was being tested for the virus at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital. 

Officials at Public Health England have warned that it is “highly likely” that cases of the virus will be seen in the UK. 

There is significant travel in and out of China at this time of year, as the country celebrates the busy Lunar New Year.

For instance, two of those being tested in Scotland had been diagnosed with flu after travelling to Wuhan in China – the origin of the global outbreak.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, repeating advice from WHO, advised travellers to China to change their plans.

The Department said that while the risk of contracting the disease is low for travellers and foreign residents, there is a possibility that travel could be disrupted by increased quarantine and containment measures employed by the Chinese government.

It added that the Irish embassy would “continue to monitor the situation”.

World Health Organisation

Yesterday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it is “too early” to declare an international public health emergency over the outbreak “given its restrictive and binary nature”.

Speaking at a press conference, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: “Make no mistake, this is though an emergency in China.

“But it has not yet become a global health emergency.

“It may yet become one.”

“We know that most of those who have died had underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, that weakened their immune systems,” Tedros said. 

“We know that there is human-to-human transmission in China, but for now it appears limited to family groups and health workers caring for infected patients,” he said.

“At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

The WHO has advised that individuals should protect themselves against the virus by thoroughly washing their hands, covering their noses when they sneeze, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs, and avoiding close contact with wild or farm animals.

china-coronavirus-outbreak-in-china Chinese workers check the body temperatures of the passengers wearing face masks. Costfoto / SIPA USA/PA Images Costfoto / SIPA USA/PA Images / SIPA USA/PA Images

What happens now?

Officials have acknowledged that the virus will inevitably spread. 

China has put in significant measures to try and slow the spread. Authorities announced today a new 1,000-bed hospital would be quickly built, solely to treat patients with the virus.

The hospital, modelled on a facility the Chinese government had constructed during the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, is due to be finished in less than two weeks.

Sections of the Great Wall of China have also been closed, with events and attractions also temporarily shut. 

In Wuhan, masks have been made mandatory in public, and images from the city showed empty shelves in shops as people stock up for what could be an extended isolation. Train stations, the airport and subways are closed.

Countries around the world are now preparing their response to the virus.

University of Sydney associate professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in global health security, said only a “handful” of countries could conceivably pull off the mass quarantine.

He suggested the US was one of the few that may be able to mount a similar operation, using the National Guard, although it would face much stiffer opposition from a population accustomed to more civil liberties.

Scientists with the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College, London, warned in a paper last week that the number of cases in Wuhan was likely to be close to 1,700 — much higher than the number officially identified.

World Health Organization (WHO) / YouTube

Lessons learned?

The response from China has largely been praised, with experts making favourable comparisons to how the country handled SARs. 

Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases at the University of Sydney, said China had “has been quick to share the genome sequencing of this novel coronavirus.

“This has enabled the identification of this new case in Japan,” he said.

Now, authorities around the world are on high-alert – and waiting to see how far the virus spreads.  

With reporting from Press Association, AFP and Hayley Halpin

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