Georgina Lee and Patrick Worrall
A newly-identified virus has infected more than 2,800 people worldwide and killed at least 81 people in China, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization and Chinese state media.
The centre of the 2019-nCoV virus outbreak is Wuhan in central China, although cases have now been diagnosed in other countries.
There are seven known coronaviruses – named after their crown-like shape under a microscope. The SARS variant infected more than 8,000 people in 2003 and killed 744.
The new coronoavirus is still spreading – and so are rumours and misinformation about it. Here’s what we know and what we don’t know so far.
How bad is this outbreak compared to SARS or swine flu?
Prof Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told FactCheck: “It is still far from the scale of the SARS epidemic and nowhere near the scale of pandemic H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009-10.
“We do not yet know how widespread the infection will become, and we do not yet have a firm estimates of the case fatality rate, so we cannot estimate the death toll either.
“What we can say is that the rapid increases in cases and deaths in China in recent days looks likely to continue, at least in the short term, that we expect further geographic spread within and beyond China over the same period.”
Where has it spread to so far?
According to WHO data, 2,827 cases have been confirmed so far, the vast majority in China.
Some 44 patients have been diagnosed with the virus in 13 other countries. The Chinese government has put the death toll at 81 and no deaths have been reported outside China so far.
The UK has tested some 73 patients for suspected Corona, but so far, no one has been found to have the virus. As it stands, there are no confirmed cases in Britain.
How worried should people in the UK be?
Professor Woolhouse added: “The risk is currently ‘low’. There have been no cases in the UK to date.
“Anyone with flu-like symptoms is overwhelming more likely to have an ordinary respiratory infection than this new virus. That even applies to people with connections with Wuhan, as the recent negative testing of 31 suspect cases indicates.
“However, the risk is almost certain to increase as the outbreak develops.”
What is the official advice for travellers to China?
Public health bodies in the UK and US are both advising against non-essential travel to Hubei province.
The UK government advice is that people should seek medical attention “if you have visited Wuhan and develop a fever, difficulty breathing or a cough within 14 days”.
“In the UK, please stay indoors and avoid contact with others where possible, call your GP or ring 111 informing them of your symptoms and your recent travel to the city.”
The current advice does not call for patients who have visited Wuhan to make themselves known to the authorities in Britain if they have no symptoms of illness.
In a new twist today the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said people who have returned from Wuhan in the last two weeks should “self-isolate” – avoiding contact with other people – for 14 days even if they do not have symptoms.
Should I wear a mask?
World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines say healthcare workers treating patients should wear masks, goggles, surgical gowns and gloves.
The guidelines stay staff should be trained to wear masks and other protective equipment, as they need to be taken off and disposed carefully, and new ones issued when treating a new patient.
A number of experts have said there is no need for the general public to wear masks in places where the risk of infection is low.
The current WHO infection control advice for the general public does not mention masks or goggles, focusing instead on handwashing, covering the mouth while sneezing, and avoiding raw and undercooked food.
Is there a vaccine?
There is currently no vaccine available for the 2019-nCoV virus, despite bogus claims on social media.
Several online posts have claimed that the virus was created in a lab, patented, and has a vaccine attached to it.
The posts link to real patent documents, but these refer to other diseases in the coronavirus family.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua said scientists in the country had already begun working on a vaccine. Western academics have said it may take months or years for a working vaccine to emerge.
Is there a cure?
Like SARS, the new coronavirus strain has no known cure – although most cases do not prove fatal, and some patients have already recovered and been discharged from hospital.
One German scientist working on a cure for coronaviruses has offered to travel to China to test antiviral compounds on animals.
But Professor Rolf Hilgenfeld stressed that the treatment is not ready for use in humans and speculated that drug firms may not want to fund the next stage of development for a coronavirus treatment.
He said: “The total number of people infected, if you combine SARS, MERS and this new virus, is under 12,500 people. That’s not a market. The number of cases is too small. Pharmaceutical companies are not interested.”
Is it caused by bats?
It’s not implausible that wild bats could be the source of a coronoavirus epidemic. Both the SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012 may have begun in bats.
Like ebola, swine flu and many other infectious diseases, coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means that they jump from animals to people.
Chinese researchers have recently published evidence showing that 2019-nCoV closely resembles a similar virus found in bats.
But we simply don’t know the source of the original outbreak yet.
The Chinese authorities linked early cases to a seafood market in Hunan, where exotic wild animals may have been kept in close proximity to each other and sold for food.
But a new paper published in the Lancet shows that 14 out of 41 patients analysed by Chinese researchers were not exposed to the seafood market, including the first reported case, who became ill on December 1 last year.
“No epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases,” the researchers noted.