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What is the novel coronavirus?

04 February 2020

In epicenter of disease: Hankou railway in Wuhan has been heavily guarded since the lockdown (SCMP photo)

The novel coronavirus originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, and has spread so rapidly that in less than a month it has affected people all over the country, and beyond.

So far, more than 6,000 people have caught the pneumonia-like illness in China, and more than 130 have died. But it has spread so rapidly that there are now cases in nearly all of the world’s continents, including Asia, North America, Europe, and possibly even Africa.

Outside of China, Hong Kong has currently the highest number of confirmed cases – 10 as of Jan. 30.


The extent of its spread has already surpassed that of another deadly coronavirus, Sars, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which infected 6,000 people, mostly in China. However, Sars appears to be deadlier, killing more than 700 people, including 299 in Hong Kong.

Experts are divided on whether the Wuhan coronavirus has already peaked. The more optimistic forecast is that it has passed its most virulent stage and will wane in the next week or so. But others fear it could get more serious over the next weeks – or months – and will begin to decline only after April, as Sars did way back in 2003.

In the meantime, the rush to find a cure for it continues, with China and Hong Kong leading the way.


This appears to be of utmost importance now, as the number of person-to-person transmission is going up. At least six people are found to have been contaminated when they had never been to China. Most vulnerable, however, are the frontline health workers, about a dozen of whom have already caught the dreaded bug.

The newly discovered coronavirus has also bridged the ethnic divide lately, with at least three foreigners – an Australian and Pakistani – testing positive for it. Several more Pakistanis studying in Wuhan are suspected of having acquired it.

The first case was reported to the World Health Organization on Dec 31 last year, and was traced back to a Wuhan wet market where seafood and exotic animals were sold.

Chinese medical experts identified the ailment in early January as a new strain of coronavirus, and labeled it 2019-n-CoV.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illnesses, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like Sars and Mers, or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which has a 33% mortality rate.

Coronaviruses mostly affect animals, but some evolve to infect humans and spread among them. Only seven, including 2019-nCoV, are known to infect humans.

No vaccines for coronaviruses have been developed but many of the symptoms they cause can be treated.

The WHO has called the outbreak an emergency only in China, but is now reconsidering its stance after the rapid spread of the contamination beyond the mainland’s borders.

To prevent the spread of the virus, the WHO recommends washing hands regularly, covering the mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs, and avoiding unprotected contact with live animals.

It also suggests avoiding close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness.

Local experts say masks are an important protection against the coronavirus.

“If you are ill, put on a mask. If you are going to a crowded place, put on a mask even if you are not ill,” said Dr. Gabriel Leung, dean of Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Medicine.

Dr Leung also said that anyone who develops symptoms should seek medical help immediately, and to be honest with their doctors.

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