A Deadly Coronavirus Is Spreading, But What Exactly Is It?

Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/Shutterstock.
UPDATE: As of Feb. 24, there are now 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Canada. Risk of contracting the virus is low here, but the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is working with provinces, territories, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to keep a close eye on the situation, which officials are not calling a pandemic yet.
Air Canada has suspended flights between Canada and mainland China until April as a result of the growing number of cases and affected countries. Globally, there have been more than 80,000 confirmed cases and 2,700 deaths from COVID-19 with the vast majority in China.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, January 21, at 11 a.m.
On Monday, the Chinese government confirmed human-to-human transmission of a new coronavirus, raising the likelihood that it could spread quickly and widely as the Lunar New Year begins. Authorities in China announced a considerable increase in the number of confirmed cases of the potentially fatal respiratory virus to more than 300 ahead of the highest traffic travel season in the country.
So far, six people have died from coronavirus, a number which doubled just in the last two days. Thailand and Japan have each identified three cases that can be linked to recent travel from China and South Korea confirmed its first case on Monday, too.
But, coronavirus was identified in China last month and monitored closely. On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization office in China was informed of cases of pneumonia with an unknown cause in Wuhan. Then, on January 7, Chinese authorities identified a novel coronavirus and WHO published interim medical guidance to prepare countries for the virus. This included best practices for monitoring patients, treatment, and controlling the outbreak by educating the public.
“The recent outbreak of novel coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan and other places must be taken seriously,” President Xi Jinping said in a public statement. “Party committees, governments and relevant departments at all levels should put people’s lives and health first.”
The World Health Organization announced an emergency committee meeting that will be held on Wednesday to determine whether the outbreak is to be considered a global health crisis warranting an internationally coordinated response. In the past, declarations of this kind have been used for epidemics of severe illness threatening to become pandemics as they cross international borders.
In Canada, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said on Monday that, while there is no need for panic, Canadians should be vigilant. Although the risk is low and Canada does not have any direct flights from Wuhan, airports in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver are taking precautionary measures by asking travellers who have flu-like symptoms to notify border
services personnel. Later this week, electronic kiosks will include an additional heath screen question as well.
As the virus continues to spread, many are wondering the exact nature of coronavirus, what it entails, and where it all started. We've outlined those answers below.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a catch-all term for viral types of pneumonia and respiratory viruses ranging from iterations of the common cold to MERS and SARS. They are common among animals; however, on rare occasions, they become zoonotic, meaning that they can be transmitted from animals to humans. The World Health Organization says symptoms of this virus include fever, cough, and shortness of breath.
In serious cases, certain strains of coronavirus can lead to pneumonia, kidney failure, and death. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are currently no vaccines to prevent people from contracting a coronavirus. There is also no treatment. Most people with common human coronaviruses will recover on their own. More dangerous strains such as SARS and MERS have 11% and 35% fatality rates, respectively.
But, hundreds of people came into close contact with diagnosed patients and did not get sick leading China’s municipal health commission to believe that while the virus is contagious, it is not easily transmitted between humans.

Where did the coronavirus in China start spreading?

According to the Associated Press, the outbreak was traced back to people connected to a seafood market in Wuhan — a city in central China — late last month. Experts are concerned that the virus will spread more rapidly as people around the country travel for the Lunar New Year which begins January 25 with celebrations continuing through February 8. Annually, Lunar New Year amounts to one of the largest movements of people in the world and travel advisories are now recommended throughout China as a result.

Has coronavirus ever spread in the past?

Previous severe outbreaks of a deadly strain of coronavirus include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2013. Currently, the new coronavirus appears to be less severe than either of these outbreaks, reports Healthline.
The WHO and CDC are working together to manage the outbreak of this coronavirus. The CDC developed a test to diagnose the virus and is in the process of sharing this test internationally. Travel advisories and screenings at airports have also been issued.
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