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What We Know About China’s Mysterious Coronavirus

The virus, which can spread between humans, has killed at least four people.
china coronavirus
People wearing protective masks arrive at Beijing railway station to head home for the Lunar New Year on January 21, 2020. China has confirmed human-to-human transmission in the outbreak of a new SARS-like virus as the number of cases soared and the World Health Organization said it would consider declaring an international public health emergency. NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP. 

Asia has seen multiple outbreaks of deadly diseases in recent years like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in the early 2000s, the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2012. But what is leaving many, including the World Health Organization (WHO), puzzled at the moment is a lung infection from the Chinese city of Wuhan that is now spreading worldwide. Identified as a coronavirus, it has killed at least four people and infected hundreds.


Since the first cases involved seafood market workers, it was initially believed that the disease was passed on from animals to humans. However, an expert under the Chinese government said on Monday, January 20 that it can spread between humans too.

China’s Ministry of Health has advised taking precautions like avoiding raw or undercooked meat, lessening contact with people who are unwell, screening all travellers arriving from China, and placing those diagnosed with pneumonia under a two-week quarantine.

Authorities are still in the process of studying the mysterious disease, but here’s what we know so far.

When It Started

The infection broke out between December 12 and 29, 2019. Some cases involved people who worked at a seafood market in Wuhan, a city in Hubei Province. The market has since been closed for disinfection. As of Tuesday, January 21, the virus had also reached big cities Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. There are also confirmed cases in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Shandong.

Number of Infected People

In China, four people have reportedly died because of the virus and over 200 confirmed cases have been placed under medical observation. The actual number, including unreported cases, could be bigger. A study by Imperial College London found that around 1,723 people in Wuhan were likely to have been infected by January 12.

The Symptoms

Recorded clinical signs and symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing, and invasive lesions on the lungs, the WHO reported.

What It Is and What It's Not

The Wuhan Health Commission has said that the mystery disease is not SARS, MERS, or bird flu. The commission is currently still working to identify the virus and its source. China’s health ministry has confirmed that there has been human-to-human transmission of the disease. CNN reported that one particular patient is believed to have infected as many as 14 medical staff in one hospital.

The WHO, which has been investigating the disease and is in active communication with the Chinese government, previously attributed it to an exposure to wholesale fish and live animals in the market.


“There is limited information to determine the overall risk of this reported cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology,” the WHO said in a statement on Sunday, January 5.

The organisation also noted that while the symptoms are common in several respiratory diseases and that pneumonia is common during winter, the cases should still be “handled prudently.”

The United Nations has also expressed their concern over the disease and has activated its incident-management system in China, standing by to launch a broader response if needed.

Outside China

As a precaution, neighbouring places like the Philippines, Singapore, and Hong Kong are now on high alert, implementing screening processes for travellers from Wuhan. Australia and the United States have started screening travellers too.

As of Tuesday, January 21, there were already two confirmed cases in Thailand, one in Japan, and one in South Korea. There were also 16 suspected cases in Hong Kong and two in Vietnam.

Updated on 01/21/20

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