Mind and Body

COVID-19: What scientists know about the new coronavirus so far

The death toll from the virus has passed 1,000.

Originally Published: 
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The mysterious pneumonia-like virus that has gripped Asia is spreading rapidly. Dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, the coronavirus, which originated in China, has sickened over 43,000 people globally and killed 1,018 so far. The debate over where the virus originated continues. Now, scientists point to pangolins — the world's most trafficked animal — as a possible source.

Wuhan and the Hubei province, the center of the coronavirus' outbreak, are entering their fourth week on lockdown, limiting the movement of an estimated 50 million people in the region. City officials have begun rounding up infected people in Wuhan into mass quarantine camps: hospitals, stadiums, and other converted shelters.

There are insufficient supplies of medical equipment, food, and other necessities, Willy Lam, a professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the New York Times. "This is almost a humanitarian disaster" for the central Chinese region, Lam said. "The Wuhan people seem to be left high and dry by themselves.”

Authorities also say the total number of coronavirus cases may be an underestimation, as hospitals and clinics are under "severe strain to test for the virus," the Times also reports.

As the outbreak grows, health officials are racing to learn how the virus spreads, how it impacts the body, and, crucially, how to contain it.

Current Updates:

  • The Wuhan Coronavirus is spreading rapidly: As of February 11th, the total number of identified cases is 43,103, according to the WHO. 1,018 people have died from the coronavirus, all in China, excluding one case in the Philippines. In China, the number of known cases of the coronavirus has surpassed the official tally from the SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003.
  • Where is it? Most of the confirmed cases are located in China (42,708). According to WHO, 7,333 of those cases are severe. The virus is also expanding globally: It has been detected in 24 different countries, with the most cases in Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Korea. The United States reports 13 cases. The cities outside of China with the risk of getting hit hardest from the virus are Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Sydney, New York, and London, according to a report from the University of Southampton. The most "at-risk" countries are Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong. You can track the spread in real-time here.
  • International Response: The Centers for Disease Control maintains the risk to the American public is "low," while the World Health Organization (WHO) states the global risk is "high" and the risk in China is "extremely high." After days of deliberation, the WHO declared the outbreak an international public health emergency on January 30. The CDC has warned U.S. travelers to avoid all non-essential visits to China. U.S. citizens, residents and their immediate family members who have been in Hubei province and other parts of mainland China are allowed to enter the United States, but they are subject to health monitoring and possible quarantine for up to 14 days, the CDC says. The Trump Administration is also temporarily barring foreigners who have traveled to China.

The section above is being updated to reflect the latest information. The story is ongoing. This article was originally published on January 22.

At the start of the outbreak, Jonah Sacha, an immunologist and vaccine researcher, told Inverse that there were simply too many unknowns to draw many conclusions about coronavirus. But it is very possible that the virus could balloon into a global pandemic. Sacha likens that eventuality to the 1918 Spanish flu, which swept the world and left a trail of destruction in its wake.

“A new virus with the capability to spread between humans can cause significant mortality and disrupt society,” he says. “This virus might simply fizzle out or lead to a full-blown pandemic. No matter which way it goes, it serves to underscore that our best protection against such threats is a continued investment in biomedical research.”

Here's what scientists know so far about the so-called “Wuhan flu,” the questions at the top of scientists' minds, and the best ways to protect yourself.

What is 2019-nCoV?

Experts have never seen a virus exactly like this before, but six other coronaviruses that infect humans which offer some clues, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control. Four of these viruses cause relatively minor flu-like symptoms, including fever, sore throat, cough, and a runny nose. But the other two coronaviruses can lead to the development of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory system (MERS) — both of which can prove fatal.

This photo taken on January 21, 2020 shows commuters wearing face masks arriving the Yichang East Railway Station, in China's central Hubei province.

STR / Contributor / Getty Images

SARS conjures terrifying images of the 2003 coronavirus outbreak, which infected 8,098 people and killed 774 people across two dozen countries. The new coronavirus isn’t SARS, but officials don’t know how contagious or dangerous it is in comparison.

The CDC says people should look out for warning signs such as fever, cough, and trouble breathing, especially if they have recently traveled near the virus' epicenter, Wuhan. If you think you have the virus, seek medical attention at the nearest hospital.

How does Wuhan flu spread?

Coronaviruses are typically transmitted from animal to animal -- they’re common among bats, livestock, camels, and even household pets. But a recent analysis reveals this new virus seems to have leaped to humans from a new animal — snakes.

In a paper published this week, scientists analyzed the virus’ RNA sequences, tracing the virus back to the Hua Nan or South China Wholesale Seafood Market, where poultry, farm animals, snakes, and bats are sold. The findings suggest “cross‐species transmission from snake to humans," according to the paper.

But there are “growing indications” that the virus is spreading from person to person, too, the CDC says. But as for how quickly it spreads and how it spreads, experts aren’t sure. The CDC advises taking these precautions to protect yourself:

  • Wear a mask if you are infected or close to an infected person.
  • Clean surfaces with germ-killing disinfectant.
  • Cover up your coughs and sneezes.
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap.

How can we stop the virus?

There’s currently no specific treatment for the new coronavirus, NBC reports, but the US National Institutes of Health and a private company, Regeneron, are developing a vaccine to prevent "Wuhan flu."

Meanwhile, panic has risen as people anticipate the start of the Spring Festival holiday, when over 400 million Chinese people typically travel across the globe. The holiday kicks off with the Lunar New Year on Saturday.

In an effort to control the virus’s spread, Chinese officials are instituting a transportation “shut off” in Wuhan, the New York Times reports. City officials are grounding planes and stopping trains, ferries, and buses from leaving Wuhan. Five other cities in the province are seeing "clampdowns" on transport, according to the BBC. As of Thursday morning, the city of Huanggang shuttered cafes, cinemas, and theaters, while Ezhou shut its train stations. Across the Hubei province, public health officials are advising city-goers to wear a mask.

Wuhan city officials also report installing 35 infrared thermometers and distributing 300 portable thermometers to airports and transport centers, according to local newspaper China Daily.

This image, from 2009, shows passengers being screened for high temperatures using an infrared camera upon arrival in Indonesia, one of the many measures the country took to prevent the spread of SARS.


Chinese officials have also started screening people for signs and symptoms as they exit the country. They are searching cars entering and leaving Wuhan for wild animals or live poultry. Other countries that neighbor China are putting in place similar health-screening efforts, the CDC says.

Here in the US, passengers traveling from China are being screened at major airports, including New York's John F. Kennedy airport, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, NBC reports. Officials are looking for elevated body temperatures and may ask travelers to fill out questionnaires to gauge if they have any flu-like symptoms.

The CDC has released a level 3 travel alert, advising people to avoid any "non-essential" travel to China.

Global public health agencies are cautiously bracing for the worst, following typical infectious disease protocols. The World Health Organization called an emergency committee meeting yesterday in Geneva, Switzerland, weighing whether to declare the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern" — a move that would put people and governments on high alert. The 16-person committee was split down the middle on whether the outbreak is a global crisis, according to Wired. The committee is reconvening today to debate again and reach consensus.

“We should absolutely be concerned any time a new pathogen emerges,” Sacha says. “It’s not often you see the markets stumble and pull back on the fears of a new virus, and that should be enough to give one pause.”

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