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Everything you need to know about the coronavirus

As of February 11, the viral outbreak has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people across the world.
Updated Feb 15, 2020 08:11pm

The death toll from a new coronavirus outbreak surged past 1,000 on Tuesday as the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that infected people who have not travelled to China could be the spark for a "bigger fire".

Another 108 deaths were reported on Tuesday — the first triple digit rise since the virus emerged. The number of deaths has increased a thousandfold in just one month, reaching 1,016, though the mortality rate remains relatively low at 2.4 per cent.

According to the data available up to February 11, the viral outbreak has infected more than 40,000 people across the world.

Chinese authorities have locked down millions of people in a number of cities while several governments have banned arrivals from China, and major airlines have suspended flights to keep the disease away from their shores.

But the case of a British man who passed on the virus to at least 11 other people — without having been in China — has raised fears of a new phase of contagion abroad.

Here is what we know about the virus so far:

Where did the virus come from?

The virus is believed to have originated late last year in a food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife. Health experts think it may have originated in bats and then passed to humans, possibly via another animal species.

There are also reports that the intermediate host could be pangolins, according to researchers at the South China Agricultural University.

WHO was alerted to several cases of pneumonia in Wuhan at the end of December. A week later, Chinese authorities confirmed they had identified a new virus.

How dangerous is it?

The new virus, identified by scientists as 2019-nCoV, is a coronavirus, a family of viruses that include the common cold and more serious diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

A woman and a boy purchase face masks in Hong Kong on Feb 1. ─ AP
A woman and a boy purchase face masks in Hong Kong on Feb 1. ─ AP

Coronavirus infections have a wide range of symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties.

It is unclear how deadly the new virus is. Although severe cases can cause pneumonia and death, there may be many cases of milder disease going undetected. Many of those who have died had pre-existing medical conditions or were elderly, those with weakened immune systems.

However, the mortality rate for the disease remains relatively low at 2pc. In comparison, the mortality rate for Sars was roughly 9pc.

How is it transmitted?

The new coronavirus can be transmitted from person to person, although it is not clear how easily that happens. Majority of the cases so far are in people who have been in Wuhan, family members of those infected, or medical workers.

Transmission is most likely through close contact with an infected person via particles in the air from coughing or sneezing, or by someone touching an infected person or object with the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

Doctors in China have also said that pregnant women infected with the new coronavirus may be able to pass it to their unborn children.

Are antibiotics effective?

No, antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria.

The new coronavirus is a virus and, therefore, antibiotics should not be used as a means of prevention or treatment. However, if you are hospitalised for the 2019-nCoV, you may receive antibiotics because bacterial co-infection is possible.

Are there any medicines to prevent or treat coronavirus?

Indians who arrived from Wuhan are transported in a bus to a quarantine facility, at the airport in New Delhi, India. ─ AP
Indians who arrived from Wuhan are transported in a bus to a quarantine facility, at the airport in New Delhi, India. ─ AP

To date, there is no specific medicine recommended to prevent or treat the new coronavirus.

However, those infected with the virus should receive appropriate care to relieve and treat symptoms, and those with severe illness should receive optimised supportive care. Some specific treatments are under investigation, and will be tested through clinical trials. WHO is helping to accelerate research and development efforts with a range or partners.

While researchers are scrambling to come up with a treatment for the virus, some doctors are trying out a potent brew of anti-retroviral and flu drugs to treat those infected, but the science is inconclusive as to whether they are effective.

How can it be prevented?

WHO’s standard recommendations for the general public to reduce exposure to and transmission of a range of illnesses are as follows, which include hand and respiratory hygiene, and safe food practices:

Read more here.

Where has it spread to so far?

The vast majority of the cases so far identified have been in China, mostly in and around Wuhan. The other countries with confirmed cases, as of February 11, include Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, US, Canada, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Russia, Spain, Belgium, Finland, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates.

The WHO is looking very closely at cases of person-to-person transmission outside of Wuhan, which would suggest that it may have the potential to spread further.

What are authorities doing?

This Feb 1 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency shows construction workers at the site of the Huoshenshan temporary field hospital being built in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. ─ AP
This Feb 1 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency shows construction workers at the site of the Huoshenshan temporary field hospital being built in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. ─ AP

The Chinese government has put Wuhan into virtual quarantine to try to stop the spread of the virus. A number of foreign governments have advised against non-essential travel to China and have begun flying their citizens out of Wuhan while others have decided not to repatriate citizens in an effort to contain the virus.

Is this like Sars?

The new virus is a strain of coronavirus, like Sars, which killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.

Unlike Sars, which also originated in China, it is believed the new virus can spread during the incubation period of one to 14 days, possibly before an infected person is showing symptoms.