Should we be worried about coronavirus?

The WHO postponed its decision about whether to classify the new Wuhan coronavirus as a global health emergency. It wants to gather more information. In the meantime, China has barred people from leaving Wuhan.

There’s so much we don’t know about the virus, which increases the level of concern from public health officials.
So here’s what we know about coronavirus.

Origins in Wuhan

We first heard about cases of pneumonia caused by a new virus in December from authorities in Wuhan. What started as a cluster of 27 people with pneumonia with common symptoms has spiralled to 582 confirmed cases, including medical staff, and 17 deaths. The cases span 13 provinces in mainland China as well as Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Taiwan and Macau. We are yet to see a confirmed case in Australia, but that could change any minute. Test results of a Brisbane man who was suspected of having the virus came back clear.

Development of a diagnostic test

China was extraordinarily efficient and open in identifying the virus, a new strain of coronavirus, within just over a week. Chinese scientists sequenced the virus’s genetic code and, within days, shared that information with the world.

We already live among coronaviruses

Four other human coronaviruses cause colds, flu-like illnesses and more severe respiratory diseases such as pneumonia. Viral pneumonia is a combination of virus infection of the lungs and our body’s immune response to that damage.

Newborns, the elderly, immunocompromised people and those with underlying disease are at particular risk. There are also two more infamous coronaviruses that jumped from animals to infect human hosts: SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

Because we are at such an early stage of discovery and characterisation of the new Wuhan virus, it’s very difficult to compare it to other viruses or to draw any strong conclusions about how it transmits, and its impact on humans.
How does it spread?

We don’t know where the new virus came from originally. Once we know where it came from we can track down and remove the source of the virus.

What we know and don’t know

Up to January 22, 17 deaths have tragically occurred from 582 cases. The number of virus cases is likely to be an underestimate, but we don’t know by how much.

So far, we know the new Wuhan coronavirus causes pneumonia and therefore places an extra burden on hospitals. It’s likely transmitting from human to human, but may also still be transmitting from animal to humans. And it can be tested for by professional laboratories.

For now, authorities are ensuring we are prepared while we await further details.

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