The virus behind a mysterious pneumonia spreading in China has been identified by Chinese authorities, according to a statement by the World Health Organization. Tests run on 15 of those who are unwell suggest that they are all infected with a new coronavirus, in the same family as SARS and MERS.
So far, the virus has left at least 59 people unwell in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, with symptoms ranging from fever to difficulty breathing. All have received medical treatment in isolation, according to Chinese authorities. Some have since been discharged.
Possible cases have been identified outside China. A woman in South Korea, who visited Wuhan in December, has similar symptoms, and is currently undergoing tests to find out if she has the same virus. Thirty-eight people have been admitted to hospitals in Hong Kong with similar symptoms, although 21 of them have since been discharged, according to media reports. Earlier in the week, a suspected case identified in Singapore was found to be unrelated to the cases in Wuhan.
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Coronaviruses can cause typical cold symptoms, such as runny nose, sore throat and fever. Most only cause mild illnesses, but some are more dangerous. Ten per cent of known infections of SARS, for example, were fatal. And MERS, which has spread in the Middle East since 2012, has a fatality rate of 34 per cent.
The new virus in China does cause severe illness in some people, according to Chinese authorities: seven of the 59 infected individuals are critically ill. But there are no reported deaths from the infection. Unlike SARS and MERS, the virus doesn’t seem to spread easily between people, but scientists don’t know enough about the virus to be sure.
Some of the people who have become ill worked at a seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold chickens, bats and other wild mammals – suggesting that the virus may have been spread to people from one of these animals. “The general public should avoid this type of market, and avoid eating wild animals,” says Leo Poon at Hong Kong University.
The World Health Organization isn’t recommending any travel or trade restrictions. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a low-level travel notice recommending that travellers to Wuhan avoid animals and contact with sick people, and wash their hands often with soap and water.
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