Coronavirus – the so-called ‘mystery virus’ in China – has understandably made headlines in recent days, as it begins to spread beyond China. Already there have been suspected cases reported in Scotland. The evidence so far however is that this virus is unlikely to lead to a global pandemic, and the government have said that the risk to the UK is low although this advice may change in the coming days.
We know that the virus (currently known as 2019-nCoV) originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan with the first cases appearing last month, but the health authorities there were slow to pick up on its significance.
It is a virus type known as a coronavirus, which are common among animals but which can occasionally transmit to humans as in this outbreak. Current thinking is that the animal hosts may have been snakes, although a seafood market in Wuhan that was illegally trading in live animals is also being investigated.
Although most coronaviruses cause mild cold-like symptoms, two types – SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) – can be fatal, having killed around 1,500 people between them in recent years. So far about 20 people are said to have died in China but exact figures are hard to come by and this may be a significant underestimate. It is thought that this Wuhan virus is milder than SARS and MERS, with only 15 per cent or so of infected people requiring intensive treatment to date, and a current death rate of 2 per cent. Middle-aged and older people appear to be being affected in more numbers at present than children or younger adults although all age groups are at risk.
Typical symptoms of this coronavirus are of a mild to moderate upper respiratory illness, with cold-like symptoms, sore throat, high temperature, headache and cough. The Chinese authorities initially described the virus as a new type of pneumonia before realising what was happening, and it is spread in exactly the same way as flu and colds are – by droplet transmission, where infected micro-droplets of fluid are breathed in by people near an infected individual who coughs or sneezes beside them.
This is why so many people in China are now wearing masks but just as important is transmission by touch, when someone touches a hard contaminated surface such as a door handle or passenger pole on a train or bus and then touches their own face.
Just as with the common cold, there is no specific treatment for coronaviruses, and there is currently no vaccine available to protect against it. This means that if hospital care is needed, the treatment is supportive and consists of trying to reduce the impact on the lungs and other organs until the body naturally recovers over time.
This also means that simple basic hygiene precautions are the cornerstone in preventing spread and reducing the risk of infection developing. These include washing your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If you cough, always cover your mouth then wash your hands, and if you have to sneeze do so into the crook of your elbow. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if at all possible(to prevent viral transmission from the hands to the face) and disinfect any surfaces you regularly touch. If you have recently returned from China and experience flu-like symptoms then seek medical advice.
The World Health Organisation is currently debating as to whether to declare a global emergency – its highest level – for this virus and the picture is changing on an almost hourly basis but at present the most stringent measures such as transport lockdown are restricted to certain regions of China.
The risk to anyone in the UK who has not recently travelled to China remains low and we should not be unduly anxious but one thing is certain – this story is only going to grow in the coming days as the virus spreads further and to greater numbers of people.