- Fourteen of the 328 Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan tested positive for coronavirus before their flights took off Sunday night
- CDC officials warned that they should not fly alongside uninfected passengers for fear of spreading the virus
- State Department officials overruled their objections and put the infected people in isolation pods on the cargo planes, the Washington Post reported
- Now, 18 American evacuees from the ship are confirmed to have coronavirus, US officials said Friday
- A State Department official defended the decision as one made in an ’emerging situation’ and praised authorities on the ground for ‘bringing them home’
- CDC spokesperson Dr Nancy Messonnier warned that coronavirus is not yet spreading in US communities but said it’s ‘likely that it may happen’
- Sixteen other Americans have been confirmed to have coronavirus, which has sickened more than 77,000
- The cruise ship, by far the largest cluster of coronavirus cases outside China, has become the biggest test so far of other countries’ ability to contain an outbreak that has killed 2,250 people worldwide
State Department officials defended their decision to fly the 14 people who tested positive for coronavirus in Japan back to the US with uninfected passengers against CDC warnings during a Friday press briefing, pointing to the 328 passengers who’d been evacuated from the Diamond Princess and were stuck waiting to go home on buses (pictured)
Eleven of the 13 ‘high risk’ evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan were brought to Nebraska for quarantine, including Carl Goldman (pictured), who developed symptoms has an underlying condition, and was transferred to a biocontainment unit, according to his wife. Now, 11 of the them have tested positive for coronavirus
The State Department confirmed that, after the evacuees had been placed on buses to the airport, 14 people who were not showing symptoms had tested positive for the virus – and were then placed into isolation chambers (pictured)
With 11 new confirmed cases among the Omaha, Nebraska evacuees, there are now 27 cases of coronavirus in eight US states
The Nebraska Biocontainment Unit is one of just three in the U.S. that were designated equipped to contain and treat patients with Ebola during the 2014 outbreak that struck 11 Americans, including one, seen here being transported into the facility
Staff at the Nebraska Biocontainment unit practice placing a subject (an Air Force service member) in one of the specialized chambers that one of 13 evacuees from the Diamond Princess at ‘high risk’ of coronavirus was placed in after arriving at Eppely Air Field in Omaha on Monday. The other 12 patients are in quarantine
A second plane carrying Americans evacuated from the Diamond Princess ship arrives at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas after flying back from Tokyo
One of two planes carrying 340 Americans back to the US from Japan where they spent almost two weeks under coronavirus quarantine on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship has landed at Travis Air Force Base in California (pictured)
The sick passengers were allowed to continue on the flight but inside the isolation chambers (pictured), and will be taken for treatment separate to the other passengers after landing
340 Americans decided to abandon ship and take the government charter flights back to the US, where they will be under additional quarantine on two military bases for another 14 days
Japan said that 340 Americans were taken to Tokyo’s airport to be evacuated, while another those who had already been diagnosed were forced to stay behind for treatment. A handful of others opted to stay
Passengers on board the 747 cargo airplane could be seen taking pictures as they arrived back in America, having been held on the cruise ship since February 3
Buses carrying U.S. passengers who were aboard the quarantined cruise ship the Diamond Princess, seen in background, leaves Yokohama port, near Tokyo, early Monday. The cruise ship was carrying nearly 3,500 passengers and crew members
Passengers are seen boarding one of two planes bound for the U.S. at Tokyo’s Haneda airport late Sunday after they evacuated the Diamond Princess cruise ship
A bus carrying U.S. passengers who were aboard the quarantined cruise ship the Diamond Princess arrives at Haneda airport in Tokyo, before the passengers board a Kalitta airplane chartered by the U.S. government
Americans Cheryl and Paul Molesky, a couple from Syracuse, New York, said after boarding the flight: said: ‘Well, we’re exhausted, but we’re on the plane and that’s a good feeling. Pretty miserable wearing these masks though, and everybody had to go to the bathroom on the bus.’
Americans who evacuated the cruise ship are pictured boarding one of the two planes that took them back to the U.S.
Those Americans who chose to leave the Diamond Princess are seen in a chartered evacuation aircraft to fly back to the US
Phil Courter, a U.S. passenger on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, wears a face mask on a chartered evacuation aircraft to fly back to the United States at Haneda airport in Japan
Health officials in protective suits are seen ferrying passengers to board the evacuation flights in Tokyo
Medical workers in protective suits attend to a patient inside an isolated ward of Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak
Medical staff members treating a patient infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province
Health officials warned the State Department not to fly 14 American cruise passengers from the Diamond Princess who tested positive in Japan back to the US alongside healthy passengers, for fear the virus would spread.
The State Department batted aside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) staunch warnings and flew all 328 evacuees back together on two planes.
Now, 18 of those passengers are positive for the deadly coronavirus that’s killed 2,250 people worldwide, CDC officials confirmed Friday.
Sources involved in the decision told the Washington Post that CDC staunchly warned the State Department against transporting infected and uninfected people side-by-side, but were ultimately overruled.
‘It was like the worst nightmare,’ said a senior US official involved in the decision, who spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity.
‘Quite frankly, the alternative could have been pulling grandma out in the pouring rain, and that would have been bad, too.’
Now, those 328 passengers are all back on US soil after spending more than two weeks on the cruise ship that’s become the most densely infected place in the world outside China.
Asked about the conflict between the two agencies during a Friday press briefing, CDC spokesperson Nancy Messonnier punted curtly to the State Department.
‘It’s important to remember this was an emerging and unusual circumstance,’ said Ian Brownlee, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Consular Affairs.
‘We had 328 people on buses, a plan to execute and we received lab results on people who were otherwise asymptomatic, un-ill people on a bus on the way to the airport.
‘The people on the ground did exactly the right thing…in bringing them home.’
People who had tested positive were put into isolation units on board the two cargo planes, which then flew to Joint Base San Antonio – Lackland in Texas and Travis Air Base in California.
Although officials reassured the press that the sick passengers were thoroughly contained and every precaution had been taken to ensure the safety of the healthy people onboard, reports later emerged that people on the flights had no idea they were sharing yet another even more confined space with infected individuals.
When the planes landed at their respective destinations late Sunday night, six ‘high risk’ passengers from Lackland and seven from Travis were ushered onto an additional flight to Omaha Eppley Airfield in Nebraska.
Eleven of the 13 American passengers evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan who were deemed ‘high risk’ for coronavirus have been confirmed to have the infection that’s spread to nearly 77,000 people around the world.
Twelve of those 13 passengers were being held at the National Quarantine Center in Omaha, Nebraska, while one was transferred immediately to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit because they had developed symptoms of the virus and had an underlying condition.
All 11 new cases were confirmed Thursday by the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while the other two passengers at UNMC tested negative.
Meanwhile, 16 of the more than 300 other evacuees from the ship who were symptom-free and quarantined at Travis Air Force Base have now developed signs of the virus and been transferred to hospitals where they can be isolated, monitored and treated.
Of those, test results came in from Japan showing that, in fact, 11 individuals were positive for coronavirus, but the results have not been confirmed by the CDC. Another five had not tested positive but had developed symptoms.
Four people were transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, which is specially-equipped to handle dangerous infectious disease in the US and another two are expected to be brought in for isolation, spokesperson Christa Arguinchona told AP Thursday.
With the additional 11 confirmed cases, there are currently an estimated 27 Americans with the coronavirus – an illness now called COVID-19 – that’s sickened nearly 77,000 people around the world, and killed 2,250 since it emerged in Wuhan, China, in December.
Officials Monday morning confirmed that 14 of the passengers that were evacuated to the U.S. had tested positive for coronavirus, but would still be allowed to fly back – in isolation chambers – on board the same planes as passengers who were negative for the virus.
One passenger has been transported to the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit after the presented with a cough and lightheadedness after landing at Eppely Air Field. Local officials said that the person has a chronic health condition, but did not specify what sort.
Later, Seratti-Goldman, an evacuee from California, claimed that that individual was her husband, Carl Goldman, who has Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease and developed a fever on the plane and was then unable to walk when they landed.
The biocontainment unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is one of just three such facilities in the nation, deemed qualified to handle patients of the Ebola outbreak that infected 11 Americans in 2014.
All 13 high risk passengers were re-tested stateside for coronavirus. Six were flown to Nebraska after landing at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California just before 11.30pm Sunday night and another seven were brought to the quarantine after landing at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, hours later.
It’s not yet clear what type of ‘care’ the patients have received while in isolation, although doctors in the US and abroad have been experimentally using antivirals, a drug designed to treat Ebola, supportive therapies (like IV fluids and ventilators) and, in China, plasma transfusions.
Since arrival, the 12 quarantined passengers have been isolated in their rooms, said Shelly Schwedhelm, an official at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said in a press briefing.
It also remains unclear what protocols have been applied to the remaining patients who tested positive for coronavirus – about four – before taking off from Japan over the weekend to flee the ship where more 454 people have now become infected with the potentially deadly virus after another 99 cases were confirmed Monday.
Fourteen of the evacuees were placed in isolation chambers on-board their evacuation flights when officials realized they had tested positive for the deadly virus.
The first 747 plane touched down at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California just before 11.30pm on Sunday local time, before the second plane arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas a few hours later.
The passengers had all been deemed ‘fit to fly’ and were not showing symptoms before disembarking from the cruise ship. As the evacuees were being taken to the airport in Tokyo, results from tests carried out two to three days earlier came back and showed the 14 passengers had the infection.
Despite the U.S. earlier saying no infected passenger would be allowed to leave, those who tested positive were still allowed to board the planes because they did not have symptoms. The State Department said they were being isolated separately from other passengers on the flights.
Health officials at the CDC advised against transporting the 14 people positive for coronavirus, but the State Department eventually
The U.S. said it arranged the evacuation because people on the Diamond Princess were at a high risk of exposure to the virus given more than 450 passengers have tested positive since the cruise liner was ordered to stay under quarantine on February 4.
As countries extricated their respective citizens from the cruise liner, which is by far the largest cluster of coronavirus cases outside China, some 3,000 people who have spent the last two weeks or more in a high risk environment fanned out across the globe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials have warned that people can be asymptomatic, test negative for coronavirus and still develop later. They and World Health Organization (WHO) experts have also cautioned that even asymptomatic people can have and transmit the virus.
And that has some experts very worried.
‘There’s a possibility that anyone who is infected and asymptomatic could start a chain of infection wherever they return to,’ Dr Stanley Deresinkski, a professor and infectious disease specialist at Stanford University told Fortune.
He was referring to passengers from the Westerdam cruise ship, currently in Cambodia but preparing to return home despite the fact that an 84-year-old American woman on board was diagnosed with coronavirus, but the same could certainly be true of the Diamond Princess, by far the largest cluster of coronavirus cases outside China.
February 4: Japan announced 10 people aboard the Diamond Princess cruise liner had been diagnosed with coronavirus.
The ship, carrying more than 3,700 passengers, was placed under quarantine.
February 15: U.S. authorities announced they would provide two planes to allow the 380 Americans on board the ship to return to the United States.
February 16: Officials revealed 454 passengers were now infected on the ship, including about 62 Americans.
Japanese authorities, dressed in head-to-toe protective suits, started transporting about 340 Americans to the airport in Tokyo on a convoy of 14 buses.
As the evacuees were being taken to the airport in Tokyo, results from tests carried out two to three days earlier came back and showed the 14 passengers had the infection.
Despite the U.S. earlier saying no infected passenger would be allowed to leave, those who tested positive were still allowed to board the planes in isolation because they did not have symptoms.
February 17: The two planes touch down at Travis Air Force Base in Northern California and Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
All of the passengers must go through another 14 days of quarantine at the military facilities – meaning they will have been under quarantine for a total of nearly four weeks.
February 19: The 14-day quarantine for the ship is scheduled to be lifted.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday that an infected person who shows minimal symptoms could still pass the virus to someone else.
It came as Japanese officials confirmed 99 additional people had been infected by the virus aboard the quarantined cruise ship, bringing the total to 454. At least 62 Americans are among those infected but it is unclear if that figure includes the 14 who were evacuated.
The United States was the first country to evacuate its passengers from the ship. Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Italy were planning similar flights of passengers.
More than 73,000 people have now been infected with the virus worldwide, while 1,873 people have died from it. Overall, Japan has 419 confirmed cases of the virus, including one death. The United States has confirmed 15 cases within the country. Separately, one U.S. citizen died in China.
U.S. authorities had announced on Saturday that they would offer the 380 Americans on board the option to leave the ship. The evacuation was not mandatory but the Americans who chose not to leave the ship were warned they wouldn’t be allowed to return to the U.S. ‘for a period of time’ that will be determined later by the Centres for Disease Control.
Those who arrived at Travis Air Force Base in California have been told they will be quarantined at the Westwind Inn on the base, which is the same place where those evacuated from Wuhan are being held. They will be kept in a separate part of the building to those who are already in quarantine.
The Americans who did evacuate the ship said they were frustrated about the additional two-week quarantine in the U.S. because they believed they would be able to walk free from the Diamond Princess when the ship’s quarantine is scheduled to be lifted on Wednesday.
‘It’s like a prison sentence for something I did not do,’ passenger Karey Mansicalco told CNN from her cabin. ‘They are holding us hostage for absolutely no reason.’
‘On cargo plane. You cannot Imagine. Crazy or worst dream ever,’ American evacuee Gay Courter wrote on Facebook after boarding one of the flights at Tokyo International Airport.
Her husband Philip added: ‘Huge windowless B-747 cargo plane with some seats bolted in. Destination unknown at this time.’
Americans Cheryl and Paul Molesky, a couple from Syracuse, New York, opted to trade one coronavirus quarantine for another, leaving the cruise ship to fly back to the U.S. Cheryl Molesky said the rising number of patients on the ship factored into the decision.
‘We are glad to be going home,’ Cheryl Molesky earlier told NHK TV in Japan. ‘It’s just a little bit disappointing that we´ll have to go through quarantine again, and we will probably not be as comfortable as the Diamond Princess, possibly.’
When they eventually boarded the plane with other Americans, Cheryl said: ‘Well, we’re exhausted, but we’re on the plane and that’s a good feeling. Pretty miserable wearing these masks though, and everybody had to go to the bathroom on the bus.’
Other Americans on board the cruise ship declined to evacuate the Diamond Princess, despite being warned they will still have to wait two weeks and test negative for the virus before being allowed back to the United States.
They feared being on a long flight with other passengers who may be infected or in an incubation period.
‘My health is fine. And my two-week quarantine is almost over. Why would I want to be put on a bus and a plane with other people they think may be infected when I have spent nearly two weeks isolated from those people?’ Matt Smith, an American lawyer on the ship with his wife, tweeted.
He described a fellow American passenger standing on her balcony chanting ‘USA, USA’ as buses arrived to collect them.
‘Of course, in contravention of the rules of quarantine, she’s not wearing a face mask and she’s talking with a passenger on the adjacent balcony… And you wanted me to get on a bus with her?’
He said American officials in hazmat suits and face masks had visited his room to check if he would disembark but he said he wanted to stay.
Later, when Smith had learned 14 infected passengers were still allowed to board the flights, he tweeted: ‘OMG! US Gov’t said they would not put anyone on the planes who was symptomatic, and they ended up knowingly and intentionally putting on 14 people who actually have the virus. Decision not to be evacuated = best decision ever!’
Japanese authorities, dressed in head-to-toe protective suits, helped transport the Americans to the airport in Tokyo on a convoy of 14 buses.
American Sarah Arana, a 52-year-old medical social worker, said there were no health checks when they passed through a makeshift passport control.
She said the U.S. government should have acted ‘much sooner, at the beginning’.
‘I am happy and ready to go,’ Arana told AFP before leaving the ship. ‘We need a proper quarantine. This was not it.’
Across mainland China, officials said the total number of coronavirus cases rose by 2,048 to 70,548. That was slightly more new cases than were reported on Sunday, but hundreds fewer than reported on Saturday.
Chinese authorities say the stabilisation in the number of new cases is a sign that measures they have taken to halt the spread of the disease are having an effect.
However, epidemiologists say it is probably still too early to say how well the outbreak is being contained within China and its central Hubei province, where the virus first appeared.
China has responded to the COVID-19 virus by effectively locking down Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan, a megacity of 11 million people.
Chinese scientists believe the coronavirus may have started life in a research facility just 300 yards from the Wuhan fish market.
A new paper from the Beijing-sponsored South China University of Technology says the Wuhan Center for Disease Control (WHCDC) could have spawned the contagion in Hubei province.
The paper, penned by scholars Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao, claims the WHCDC kept disease-ridden animals in laboratories, including 605 bats.
It also mentions that bats – which are linked to coronavirus – once attacked a researcher and ‘blood of bat was on his skin.’
The report says: ‘Genome sequences from patients were 96% or 89% identical to the Bat CoV ZC45 coronavirus originally found in Rhinolophus affinis (intermediate horseshoe bat).’
It describes how the only native bats are found around 600 miles away from the Wuhan seafood market and that the probability of bats flying from Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces was minimal.
In addition there is little to suggest the local populace eat the bats as evidenced by testimonies of 31 residents and 28 visitors.
Instead the authors point to research being carried out withing a few hundred yards at the WHCDC.
One of the researchers at the WHCDC described quarantining himself for two weeks after a bat’s blood got on his skin, according to the report. That same man also quarantined himself after a bat urinated on him.
He also mentions discovering a live tick from a bat – parasites known for their ability to pass infections through a host animal’s blood.
‘The WHCDC was also adjacent to the Union Hospital (Figure 1, bottom) where the first group of doctors were infected during this epidemic.’ The report says.
‘It is plausible that the virus leaked around and some of them contaminated the initial patients in this epidemic, though solid proofs are needed in future study.’
Concerns remain about the global transmission, especially on cruise ships which appear to have become especially virulent breeding grounds.
Fears are growing for passengers on the Westerdam cruise ship, who all received a clean bill of health when they disembarked in Cambodia – a staunch ally of Beijing.
An 83-year-old American woman was stopped by authorities in Malaysia over the weekend when she was detected with a fever and later diagnosed with the virus.
There were more than 2,200 passengers and crew on the ship when it docked in Sihanoukville, many of whom have now dispersed around the globe.
With tourism battered and global supply chains disrupted by the virus, experts are fretting about the toll it could take on a fragile global economy.
IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said there could be a cut of around 0.1-0.2 percentage points to global growth but stressed there was ‘still a great deal of uncertainty.’
Japan, one of the hardest-hit countries outside China irrespective of the Diamond Princess, suffered its biggest economic slump in more than five years – even before the coronavirus crisis. Gross domestic product in the world’s third-top economy shrank an eye-watering 1.6 percent in the three months to December – a much bigger contraction than economists had feared.
It comes after Chinese scientists revealed the deadly virus may have started life in a research facility just 300 yards from the Wuhan fish market.
A new bombshell paper from the Beijing-sponsored South China University of Technology says that the Wuhan Center for Disease Control (WHCDC) could have spawned the contagion in Hubei province.
‘The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus,’ penned by scholars Botao Xiao and Lei Xiao claims the WHCDC kept disease-ridden animals in laboratories, including 605 bats.
It also mentions that bats – which are linked to coronavirus – once attacked a researcher and ‘blood of bat was on his skin.’
The report says: ‘Genome sequences from patients were 96% or 89% identical to the Bat CoV ZC45 coronavirus originally found in Rhinolophus affinis (intermediate horseshoe bat).’
Someone who is infected with the coronavirus can spread it with just a simple cough or a sneeze, scientists say.
Over 2,000 people with the virus are now confirmed to have died and more than 75,000 have been infected. But experts predict the true number of people with the disease could be as high as 350,000 in Wuhan alone, as they warn it may kill as many as two in 100 cases. Here’s what we know so far:
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Just a week after that, there had been more than 800 confirmed cases and those same scientists estimated that some 4,000 – possibly 9,700 – were infected in Wuhan alone. By that point, 26 people had died.
By January 27, more than 2,800 people were confirmed to have been infected, 81 had died, and estimates of the total number of cases ranged from 100,000 to 350,000 in Wuhan alone.
By January 29, the number of deaths had risen to 132 and cases were in excess of 6,000.
By February 5, there were more than 24,000 cases and 492 deaths.
By February 11, this had risen to more than 43,000 cases and 1,000 deaths.
A change in the way cases are confirmed on February 13 – doctors decided to start using lung scans as a formal diagnosis, as well as laboratory tests – caused a spike in the number of cases, to more than 60,000 and to 1,369 deaths.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus has almost certainly come from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in the city, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent similar to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
There is now evidence that it can spread third hand – to someone from a person who caught it from another person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients – at least 97 per cent, based on available data – will recover from these without any issues or medical help.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
However, experts say the true number of patients is likely considerably higher and therefore the death rate considerably lower. Imperial College London researchers estimate that there were 4,000 (up to 9,700) cases in Wuhan city alone up to January 18 – officially there were only 444 there to that date. If cases are in fact 100 times more common than the official figures, the virus may be far less dangerous than currently believed, but also far more widespread.
Experts say it is likely only the most seriously ill patients are seeking help and are therefore recorded – the vast majority will have only mild, cold-like symptoms. For those whose conditions do become more severe, there is a risk of developing pneumonia which can destroy the lungs and kill you.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot currently be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak is an epidemic, which is when a disease takes hold of one community such as a country or region.
Although it has spread to dozens of countries, the outbreak is not yet classed as a pandemic, which is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
The head of WHO’s global infectious hazard preparedness, Dr Sylvie Briand, said: ‘Currently we are not in a pandemic. We are at the phase where it is an epidemic with multiple foci, and we try to extinguish the transmission in each of these foci,’ the Guardian reported.
She said that most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.