Seventeen years ago, an outbreak known as the Severe Acute Respiratory (SARS) virus was reported in Southern China resulting in over 8,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths across 29 countries. The outbreak lasted between 2002 and 2003 and triggered a global panic. Since 2004, however, no cases have been reported.

Nearly two decades later and China has been plagued with another virus from the same family as the SARS infection. The first case was reported in December 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. According to reports, the illness might have originated at a seafood market, since closed, where live food was handled.

In just over a month, the outbreak has not only spread to the cities of Beijing and Guangdong, but has been reported in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Yesterday saw the first case reported in the United States from a man who had visited Wuhan before screening measures were implemented. In total, over 400 people have been affected with seventeen confirmed deaths.

Chinese authorities have recently confirmed that the virus is spreading through human-to-human transmission with coughing and sneezing being the most effective route.

The outbreak comes at one of the busiest times of the year as millions of Chinese people begin to travel domestically and internationally to witness the Lunar New Year at the end of January.

What do we know about the virus?

Stemming from the same coronavirus family as the deadly SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome infections, the new outbreak is the first known case of the virus, named 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organisation. While there are some similarities between the viruses, it has been noted that the 2019-nCoV isn’t as fatal as the other two. Typically, coronaviruses are found in animals, but can be transferred to humans with associated symptoms ranging from coughing, fever, respiratory illness and inflammation in the lungs.

While there is evidence on how the virus is spreading, and its origins, authorities are scrambling to gain additional insight into the new strain.  “Though the transmission route of the virus is yet to be fully understood, there is a possibility of virus mutation and a risk of further spread of the epidemic,” said Li-Bin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission.

As of yet, there are no reliable and effective treatments for the virus, so health professionals are focusing on treating the symptoms. People have been advised to stay away from contact with live animals and to avoid anyone suffering from any flu-like symptoms.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

Aisha Mohamed