The previously unknown coronavirus was first reported in the city of Wuhan in China on 31 December and is seriously worrying global health experts.
The number of reported cases has tripled to 222, with three people known to have died, and the virus has spread to cities Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea – all of which have recorded cases.
Currently, a man who had flown from Wuhan to Brisbane in Australia via Sydney Airport is in isolation in his home as Queensland Health authorities run tests on whether he is carrying the coronavirus. He is showing symptoms.
Dozens are believed to be in a serious or critical condition.
Coronavirus was initially claimed to be the result of animal-to-human transmission, but doctors now confirm human-to-human transmission with 14 healthcare workers infected.
The World Health Organization has announced that it was convening an emergency meeting on the coronavirus, amid fears of a global epidemic.
Such WHO declarations are typically made for epidemics of severe diseases that threaten to cross borders and require an internationally coordinated response. Previous global emergencies have been declared for crises including the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo, the emergence of the Zika virus in the Americas in 2016 and the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014.
The coronavirus causes pneumonia, resulting in difficulty breathing. The majority of victims have had only mild symptoms, with some already discharged.
In China, past cases of viruses passing from animals to humans have been relatively common thanks to close contact with domestic animals like chickens, as well as the consumption of wild animals such as civet cats, and sometimes because population and resource pressures have pushed people deeper into previously untouched forests and jungles in the south, Foreign Policy reported.
The most notable of these in recent years was SARS, a coronavirus first reported in 2003 that eventually killed over 800 people and infected around 8,000; the government was widely blamed for covering up the spread of SARS—short for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”—until Jiang Yanyong, a retired surgeon, raised the alarm (and was briefly imprisoned as a result before eventually being hailed as a hero).
Wuhan is a city of 11 million people and the main concern by health authorities is how China handles the situation.
For days Chinese authorities kept the figure of infected people at 41; then, it suddenly jumped this weekend, eventually reaching 218. Foreign doctors estimate the number may be as high as 1,700 cases, using models of other outbreaks. Admitting the existence of more cases seems to have been prompted, in part, by public skepticism that the disease could have reached Thailand and Japan.
Inside Wuhan, extensive steps are being taken, including door-to-door surveys, the recall of medical staff from holidays, and checks on all forms of transport for people showing symptoms of infection. There have also been public announcements, including a statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping and by trusted epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan. Hong Kong, hard-hit by the SARS virus, has implemented a public health plan.
“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” Xi said in his first public statement on the crisis. “Party committees, governments, and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”
Australia is increasing airport screening of passengers arriving from anywhere in China. In the US, the John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, the San Francisco International Airport and the Los Angeles International Airport have intensified screening from flights from China.