A never-before-seen virus, detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, has claimed nine lives and infected hundreds of Chinese citizens with a pneumonia-like illness, according to China’s National Health Commission. It was first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019, and has been under investigation since. WHO indicates there are still many unknowns, but Chinese scientists have linked the disease to a family of viruses known as “coronaviruses,” the same family as the deadly SARS and MERS viruses.
The name “coronavirus” refers to a general family of viruses. Two of the earliest human transmissible coronaviruses to be discovered in the mid-20th century are thought to be responsible for a large number of cases of the common cold. This new virus is the seventh coronavirus to be identified in humans, and so far has been named 2019-nCoV (2019 novel coronavirus).
The virus is currently informally referred to as the Wuhan coronavirus, about its point of origin, the city of Wuhan in China. The first appearance came in a wave of cases in December 2019. The cases were clustered around people associated with the Huanan Seafood market and were initially labelled as a pneumonia-like illness of unknown origin.
“What we know is it causes pneumonia and then doesn’t respond to antibiotic treatment, which is not surprising, but then in terms of mortality, SARS kills 10 percent of the individuals,” Poon, a virologist at the School of Public Health at The University of Hong Kong, said. It’s not clear how deadly the Wuhan coronavirus will be.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, also known as the MERS virus, was first reported in the Middle East in 2012 and also caused respiratory problems, but those symptoms are much more severe. Three to four out of every ten patients infected with MERS died, according to the CDC.
The World Health Organization notes the initial symptoms are as simple as fever and mild respiratory distress. The onset of the virus is still relatively unknown so it may have an asymptomatic period of anywhere from two to 14 days. The virus’s symptomatic similarity to the flu presents a significant problem for containing its spread, arriving in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere winter flu season.
As of January 21, 2019, there have been over 400 confirmed cases and nine deaths. Some researchers are suggesting the number of confirmed cases is a dramatic underestimation of how broadly the virus has already spread. There could be nearly 2,000 cases of infection at least so far.
Early signs seem to suggest the virus is not as fatal as MERS, or even SARS, but it is too early to tell exactly how the virus will behave as it spreads across the globe. Any potential vaccine would be unlikely to arise for quite some time, years most likely, so the best approach in the short term is containment.