Wuhan Virus: Mystery virus that has killed 6, triggered worry

Wuhan remains the epicentre of the outbreak, with China’s National Health Commission reporting 270 cases for Hubei as a whole as of Tuesday morning.




A top Chinese scientist has confirmed that the mysterious coronavirus (a type of virus named after its spiky, solar corona-like appearance under an electron microscope) that had by Tuesday killed at least six individuals and infected another 291 in China, can spread between human beings. Chinese authorities had earlier said the virus was transmitted only from animals to humans.

“Now we can say it is certain that it is a human-to-human transmission phenomenon,” Zhong Nanshan, the scientist leading China’s government-appointed expert panel, said.

The statement has increased pressure on Beijing to contain what could become a public health crisis in the peak travel season (Chinese people are projected to make some 3 billion trips during the Spring Festival /Lunar New Year holidays beginning on Friday), and there is heightened concern in countries as far away as in Europe and America.

A 45-year-old Indian is among those infected in Shenzhen, Guangdong, and travellers from China are being screened at major Indian airports. A committee of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting on Wednesday “to ascertain whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern and what recommendations should be made to manage it”.

Why is it called the Wuhan Virus?

The first cases emerged in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. (PM Narendra Modi met China’s President Xi Jinping for their first Informal Summit in Wuhan in April 2018.) On December 31 last year, authorities confirmed that a large number of patients with unexplained pneumonia were admitted in hospitals in the city. The Huanan Seafood Market, which also sold live poultry and meats, was shut down after being identified as the likely source of the pathogen, which was identified early in January as a new coronavirus.

Wuhan remains the epicentre of the outbreak, with China’s National Health Commission reporting 270 cases for Hubei as a whole as of Tuesday morning. Guangdong seen 14 cases — and on Monday, Zhong said two patients in the province seemed to have caught the virus from relatives who had travelled to Wuhan.

Where else have cases been reported?

The virus was detected in two Chinese women who arrived in Bangkok from Wuhan last week, and in a Chinese man who returned to Japan from the city earlier this month. On Monday, an infected Chinese woman holidaymaker arrived in South Korea’s Incheon airport from Wuhan. In Hong Kong, dozens of people returning from the mainland were hospitalised, but no infection was confirmed.

What are the symptoms of infection?

According to the WHO, common signs include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Serious infections can lead to pneumonia, kidney failure, and death. Although human-to-human transmission has now been confirmed, the WHO says animals are the outbreak’s likely primary source. It is not known yet which animals are responsible.

To prevent the spread of all respiratory infections, the WHO in general asks people to cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, and to frequently wash their hands. Direct contact with farm or wild animals should be avoided — similar outbreaks in the past, like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) emerged from markets where people were in contact with live animals.

Why is there concern around the world?

People see a similarity with the SARS outbreak that infected over 8,000 people and killed around 775 in more than 35 countries worldwide in 2002-03. SARS too, was caused by a mystery coronavirus, and started in China. The source of the virus remained unknown for 15 years, until Chinese scientists in 2017 traced it back to a colony of horseshoe bats living in remote cave in Yunnan province. The virus was carried by civet cats which are sold in markets in China.

Fears that SARS could reappear linger, and memories of China misleading the rest of the world on the extent and seriousness of the outbreak have not gone away — even though there has been greater transparency this time, and President Xi has ordered that the outbreak “must be taken seriously” and dealt with every measure possible.

Zhong, who was China’s leading SARS expert during the 2002-03 outbreak, is again in charge of the government’s response.

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