World health experts around the world are trying to understand, and contain a new virus that appeared in Wuhan, China in early December. The World Health Organization called the disease caused by the COVID-19 virus, which refers to the type of virus and the year in which it occurred.
You can see where and how many cases of the disease have been reported this map. To date, there are more than 43,000 confirmed cases and 1,018 cases deaths. More than 4,000 people have recovered from the disease. The majority of the diseases are in China, but cases have been reported in more than two dozen other countries, including the US.
While this important story continues to unfold, The edge updates this page with the latest news and analysis. Our hope is to answer all your questions as people work to understand this virus and limit its spread.
Table of contents
Where does the virus come from?
At the end of December, health officials from China informed the World Health Organization that they had a problem: an unknown new virus caused pneumonia-like diseases in the city of Wuhan. They quickly established that it was a corona virus and that it was spreading rapidly through and outside of Wuhan.
Coronaviruses are common in all kinds of animals and can sometimes evolve into forms that can infect people. Two other coronaviruses have jumped on people since the turn of the century, causing the outbreak of SARS in 2002 and the outbreak of MERS in 2012.
Scientists think that this new virus could jump on people for the first time in early December. Originally the virus seemed to have infected the first people at a fish market in Wuhan and spread it from there. But an analysis early cases of the disease, published on January 24, showed that the first patient who fell ill had no contact with the market. Experts are still trying to take the outbreak back to the source.
The type of animal from which the virus originates is unclear. A team of researchers in China published a report that claimed it was from snakes based on the genetic code of the virus. However, scientists are very skeptical about that conclusion. Another analysis discovered that the genetic sequence of the new virus is 96 percent identical to one coronavirus found in bats. Both SARS and MERS originated in bats.
So is this the same as SARS?
The new virus is not a SARS, although that also started in China. Because it comes from the same viral family as SARS, it has some similarities, but it is a completely new virus. However, the agreements mean that scientists and public health officials can use what they learned from the recent outbreak to try and stop it.
China lied to the WHO about SARS. Did they lie about this too?
During the SARS outbreak, Chinese officials tried to hide cases from WHO inspectors and limit information, both internally and externally. This time, officials quickly reported the outbreak of the new virus to the WHO, which praised their rapid response and transparency in a press conference. China also allows a team of WHO experts to assist Chinese public health officials in ongoing work, the organization announced on January 28.
The US Department of Health and Human Services also said that China has been more transparent than with SARS. “The level of cooperation of the Chinese government is completely different from what we experienced in 2003,” Department Secretary Alex Azar said at a press conference.
But critics and Chinese citizens are skeptical: there are is concerned that Chinese officials are keeping the number of diseases too low and classify deaths possibly caused by the virus from pneumonia. Wuhan police too surveyed citizens for spreading what the rumors called online a few weeks ago.
(It is important to note that China is not the only country known to hide the magnitude of public health problems. In the US, for example, dozens of cities have hidden the amount of lead in their public water supply.)
How dangerous is this new virus?
At the moment nobody knows.
Information is needed both how serious a disease is and how easily it can spread to determine how “bad” it can be. Epidemiologists often use this tool to, for example, assess a new flus and guide decision making:
If a disease is not very serious (and kills only a small percentage of people), but it is very transmissible, it can still cause devastating effects – if something hits millions, the small percentage that kills it will still cause a large number of fatalities to be.
The WHO called the COVID-19 coronavirus disease – “co” and “vi” for coronavirus, “d” for disease and “19” for the year in which the disease originated.
Researchers are still trying to understand the symptoms of COVID-19, which range from mild, such as a cold, to severe. According to the WHO, around 20 percent of confirmed cases are serious. That is 20 percent of the cases that we know – it is still possible that there are many milder cases of the disease that are not marked, which would reduce the percentage of serious cases.
So far, the death rate for the new disease is around 1 or 2 percent, although it is too early to say for sure, and that can change as the outbreak progresses. The death rate for SARS was around 14 to 15 percent. The majority of deaths in this outbreak have been in older people with underlying health problems such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. (That is the same demography that is most at risk of dying from diseases such as flu.)
How fast does the virus spread?
We do not yet know how quickly or easily the virus can spread. In China, the sick have been infecting others through person-to-person transmission since early January, and the WHO has reported that there are persistent chains of people passing the virus on for at least four generations: One person became ill (probably from an animal), passed the virus on to another person, who passed it on to another person. People in four countries outside of China – the US, Germany, Japan, Vietnam – were infected with the corona virus by other people, and not from direct journeys to China.
Early evidence suggested that, like other coronaviruses, the virus jumps between people in close contact with each other and is likely to spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
Chinese officials have said that they have seen cases where people with the virus infect others before they started showing symptoms, but there is no good evidence to say if and how much that happens. A letter to The New England Journal of Medicine detailed a case where a woman who showed no symptoms seemed to infect others in Germany – but the authors of the letter didn’t really talk to herand it turned out that she felt sick when she was in contact with the people to whom she was living the virus.
If that happens regularly, the spread of the virus will be more complicated. However, there is only limited evidence that asymptomatic people can spread the virus. And even if it happened, it would probably not significantly affect the outbreak, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a press conference. “Even if there is some asymptomatic transmission, asymptomatic transmission in the history of respiratory diseases has never been the cause of outbreaks,” he said. “An epidemic is not driven by asymptomatic carriers.”
The WHO says researchers think that every sick person will infect between 1.4 and 2.5 extra people on average, although that is only a preliminary estimate. Other teams of researchers have published their own estimates, most of which say that a sick person will infect around two or three people on average.
Those numbers are called the R0 of the virus (pronounced “R-zero”). The R0 is the mathematical representation of how well an infection can spread. The higher the number, the better it can be spread. For comparison, the R0 for SARS was between two and five. But that does not mean that every sick person will infect so many people; Quarantines and other actions taken to control virus outbreaks can reduce the number of people infecting a sick person.
I cough. Do I have this virus?
If you have not recently been to Wuhan, China, or have been in close contact with someone who is ill and have recently been to Wuhan, China, you are very unlikely to have this virus. However, it is quite normal to be anxious – and there are ways to reduce that anxiety, for example, by distracting yourself with other activities or by keeping the risks in perspective.
If you live in the US, you are much more likely to have the flu or a cold. Her still flu seasonand it is not expected that high flu activity will decrease quickly. (It’s not too late to get a flu shot!)
If you feel sick and have been in Wuhan, China or have been in close contact with someone who did, tell your doctor.
How can I protect myself?
Based on what we know so far, you can protect yourself with the same measures that you would take (and should take) to protect yourself against the flu: wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough and stay away from people who are sick.
Do I have to cancel my trip to China?
The US Department of Foreign Affairs has increased travel advice for China to a Level 4, say that Americans should not travel to China because of the virus. Level 4 is it most serious warning issued. It only applies to areas with a “greater risk of life-threatening risks.” US citizens who currently live in China should “consider leaving with commercial means,” the warning said.
How is China trying to stop the virus?
On January 22, officials in Wuhan closed all transportation in the city, where more than 11 million people live. They closed buses and subways and canceled all flights and trains in and out of the city. The Director General of the WHO welcomed the decision and said it would help control the outbreak and delay the spread to other countries. Fifteen other cities, with a total of 46 million people, are also locked up, The New York Times reported.
Other officials, however, were unsure whether these quarantines would be effective: “As far as I know, trying a city of 11 million is new to science,” Gauden Galea, the representative of the World Health Organization in China, told the Associated press. “It has never been tried before as a public health measure. We cannot say at this stage that it will or will not work. “
Major cities across the country have canceled the Lunar New Year celebrations, one huge vacation in China.
Wow, this is just like the Western world cancels Christmas. For many migrant workers, this is their ONLY year-round vacation, and the only time they see their families in distant villages. https://t.co/mxJ6oDEcn8
– Mei Fong / 方 凤 美 (@meifongwriter) January 23, 2020
How are the United States at risk?
Until we know how easily the virus spreads, it’s hard to tell how important the effect can be in the United States. The CDC says the risk is for people in the US currently low.
There have been 13 confirmed cases in the U.S. Two of the patients had not traveled to China, but had contracted the virus through close family contacts (living in the same house) who had traveled there. One of the cases concerns a person who has been evacuated by the US Department of Foreign Affairs from Wuhan and placed in quarantine in California.
There have been 398 so far people in research for the new coronavirus in the United States. 318 of those cases were tested negative on 7 February. Testing is still ongoing for the remaining cases. The agency said it expects more people to investigate and see more cases in the US as the outbreak progresses.
US Minister of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declared a public health emergency in response to the corona virus. All flights from China to the US are diverted to seven airports, and every American citizen who has traveled to China is asked to quarantine for 14 days. Every American citizen who has been to Hubei Province (where Wuhan is and where the virus originated) is kept under formal quarantine for 14 days.
In addition, any stranger who has traveled to China in the last 14 days will not enter the US unless he has immediate family members there, according to a proclamation from President Trump. That decision is not supported by the WHO, which said that countries should not restrict travel and trade in their response to the virus.
What impact does the virus have on companies operating in China?
A number of airlines, including United Airlines, British Airwaysand Air Canada cancel some or all flights to and from China. United Airlines said their decision to do this was due to a drop in demand for those flights.
Technology companies such as Apple began limiting employee travel to China, even before the US Department of Foreign Affairs and CDC warned people to travel there. LG from South Korea completely banned travel to China, and both Facebook and Razer told employees who had recently returned from China to work at home.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics company with factories in China and manufacturing products for technology companies such as Apple, said the virus has no impact on their production. But China has officially extended the recent Lunar New Year holiday in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading, which could slow down normal production schedules. In a recent profit call, Apple says it is responsible for this uncertainty, as it looks ahead to the next quarter.