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The new virus in China has health officials on edge. Getty Images
  • Chinese authorities have detected a new outbreak of coronavirus, now called COVID-19.
  • While this is the same family as the SARS virus, it’s a new disease.
  • The death toll from the virus is now over 1,700.

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that’s been updated since it was first published. Healthline will continue to update this article when there’s new information.

Chinese scientists have identified a previously unknown type of coronavirus as the cause of a recent pneumonia outbreak in the city of Wuhan, according to state media.

The current situation follows the severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus (SARS-CoV) outbreak in 2002 and first detection of Middle East respiratory syndrome-coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2012.

COVID-19, the extremely infectious coronavirus sweeping through China’s Hubei province, will become a ‘community virus’ in the United States, if not this year, then the next, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield told CNN last week.

“This virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year, and I think eventually the virus will find a foothold and we will get community-based transmission,” said Dr. Redfield. “Right now we’re in an aggressive containment mode.”

Dr. Redfield emphasized that the CDC doesn’t have any evidence that coronavirus is “really embedded in the community at this time, but with that said, we want to intensify our surveillance so that we’re basing those conclusions based on data.”

Alarmingly, one of the more concerning aspects of the COVID-19 coronavirus is that someone infected can transmit it when they have no obvious symptoms of infection.

“There’s been good communication with our colleagues to confirm asymptomatic infection, to confirm asymptomatic transmission, to be able to get a better handle on the clinical spectrum of illness in China. What we don’t know though is how much of the asymptomatic cases are driving transmission,” Dr. Redfield confirmed.

On the Chinese mainland, over 1,700 medical workers have confirmed COVID-19 infections, according to the New York Times.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials are working with Chinese authorities to find out when the health workers were infected with the coronavirus, and to determine if they were exposed to the virus unknowingly within a clinical environment and if they were wearing protective equipment at that time.

U.S. military forces have been told to prepare for a possible pandemic situation due to the coronavirus virus, COVID-19, according to recently issued Navy and Marine Corps service-wide messages.

The bulletin emphasized, “An outbreak of new (novel) coronavirus is rapidly evolving [but] currently poses a low risk to personnel located in CONUS [contiguous United States].”

Meanwhile, the WHO is rallying the international community to act rapidly.

“The first vaccine could be ready in 18 months, so we have to do everything today using the available weapons to fight this virus, while preparing for the long-term,” said WHO director-general, Tedros Ghebreyesus in a statement. “You strike hard when the window of opportunity is there. That’s what we’re saying to the rest of the world.”

Over 71,000 total confirmed cases have occurred and over 1,700 people have died of the disease.

Last week there was a huge jump in new cases, almost 15,000 in the Hubei province (the epicenter of the outbreak). But the increase is due to a change in the criteria for counting diagnoses of the virus.

Hubei had previously only used RNA tests to confirm infection, which can take days to process, delaying treatment.

Now, CT scans are being used to reveal lung infection, which can speed up treatment to improve the chances of recovery, according to a New York Times report.

Domestically, another case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Texas, according to the CDC. This brings the total of U.S. COVID-19 cases to 15.

“The patient is among a group of people under a federal quarantine order at JBSA-Lackland in Texas because of their recent return to the U.S. on a State Department-chartered flight that arrived on February 7, 2020,” the CDC announced in a statement.

Officials from the CDC reported issues with tests designed to detect if someone is infected with the new coronavirus.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a press conference Feb. 12 that the tests were sent out to different states and at least 30 countries.

As part of routine testing, issues were discovered with the tests called a 2019-nCoV Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel.

“The states identified some inconclusive laboratory results,” she explained. “We are working closely with them to correct the issues.”

Messonnier said that replacement materials would be sent out for states that reported issues.

“Speed is important, but equally or more important in this situation is making sure the laboratory results are correct,” she said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency authorization on Feb. 4 allowing public health labs to use the test that can detect whether someone is infected with the new coronavirus.

This authorization was especially significant for the United States because hospitals and public health departments were in theory able to conduct testing on-site rather than shipping virus samples directly to the CDC.

Until these issues are fixed, local medical officials will still have to send samples to the CDC.

The WHO announced on Feb. 11 that the new coronavirus originating in China would now be called COVID-19.

Previously, it had been called 2019nCoV, although many media outlets referred to the virus simply as coronavirus, even though that refers to a larger family of viruses.

The director-general of the WHO warned that the international community should prepare for the spread of the novel coronavirus to accelerate.

“There’ve been some concerning instances of onward 2019nCoV spread from people with no travel history to [China]. The detection of a small number of cases may indicate more widespread transmission in other countries; in short, we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” tweeted Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO on Feb. 9.

A cruise ship in Japan has been quarantined as hundreds of the 3,700 passengers were found to be infected with the virus.

“Our guests and crew onboard Diamond Princess are the focus of our entire global organization right now and all of our hearts are with each of them,” said Jan Swartz, Princess Cruises president in a statement.

Ghebreyesus emphasized that, “In an evolving public health emergency, all countries must step up efforts to prepare for 2019nCoV’s possible arrival and do their utmost to contain it should it arrive. This means lab capacity for rapid diagnosis, contact tracing and other tools in the public health arsenal.”

However, “dramatic reductions” in the pace of the disease’s spread should begin this month if containment works, said Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity on Sunday, according to AP News.

The virus is likely to continue spreading in the United States, the CDC said.

The National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director, Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussed the ongoing novel coronavirus epidemic in a livestream video Feb. 6 with Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) editor in chief, Dr. Howard Bauchner.

“One thing is starting to be noticed. It appears that the travel-related cases that are outside of China, that then transmit to other people, it appears that somehow or other not a lot of them are catastrophic infection,” observed Fauci.

Fauci also doesn’t believe that current restrictions on travel will be effective to contain the outbreak, because they “don’t do much to stop the entry of infection when there is a broad, global pandemic, because you can’t restrict travel for the whole world.”

Fauci also told JAMA that the novel coronavirus, unlike other infections, can take a long time after infection to cause severe illness.

“This virus is really acting different. This virus, when it gets in you, it adapts itself so that you can wind up days later getting really serious disease,” emphasized Fauci.

The WHO announced that it’s declaring a public health emergency of international concern based on the outbreak of the new coronavirus.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said at a press conference that they were concerned about the virus’ ability to spread outside of China.

“The main resound or the declaration is not because of what is happening but because of what is happening in other continues. The greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker systems… that are ill-prepared to deal with it,” Ghebreyesus said.

Person-to-person transmission has been seen among people in contact with those who have the virus.

The full picture of how easily and sustainably this coronavirus spreads is still unclear.

Person-to-person transmission can happen on a continuum, with some viruses being highly contagious (like measles) and others being less so.

“This is a very serious public health situation,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in an earlier statement.

“Moving forward, we can expect to see more cases, and more cases means more potential for person-to-person spread,” she said.

The FDA will take critical actions to advance countermeasures against the new coronavirus, the administration announced on Jan. 27.

“We have a vital mission to protect and promote public health and the FDA is closely collaborating with our domestic and international public health partners to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, in a statement.

The news comes amid a significant increase in reported infections.

Hahn emphasized the FDA will begin employing the full range of the administration’s public health employees to “facilitate the development and availability of investigational medical products to help address this urgent public health situation.”

The FDA has also launched a landing page that provides “key information for the public, including product developers, on the FDA’s efforts in response to this outbreak.”

This outbreak is affecting healthy and relatively young people as well, according to a recent study published in The Lancet.

The researchers also found that most cases may be very mild, facilitating a more rapid transmission of the epidemic.

Crucially, only two-thirds of the 41 patients studied had visited the Wuhan seafood market.

The most common symptoms at onset of illness were fever, cough, and muscle pain or fatigue, according to study authors.

“It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country. Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing, and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoV infection, and to share full data with WHO,” the World Health Organization said in a statement.

On Jan. 23, the CDC escalated its health warning regarding travel to Wuhan, China, to a level 3.

This means the CDC advises travelers to avoid nonessential travel to Wuhan, China — previously identified as the epicenter of the recent outbreak.

According to the CDC:

  • Chinese officials have closed transport in and out of Wuhan, including buses, subways, trains, and the international airport.
  • Preliminary information suggests older adults and people with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe disease from this virus.
  • Person-to-person transmission has been confirmed.

Officials admitted they don’t know the source of this virus, and “we don’t understand how easily it spreads and we don’t fully understand its clinical features or severity.”

According to a report in China state media, tighter regulations will be imposed on vehicles leaving the city.

Additionally, vehicles are banned from taking passengers out of Wuhan, and measures including body temperature monitoring of drivers and vehicle disinfection will be implemented.

According to the WHO, initial information about the pneumonia cases in Wuhan, provided by Chinese authorities, pointed to the coronavirus as the pathogen causing this cluster.

Chinese authorities reported that laboratory tests ruled out SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, influenza, avian influenza, adenovirus, and other common infectious agents.

More than 8,000 people contracted the SARS virus, and almost 800 died in the 2002 pandemic.

The SARS virus spread to nearly 40 countries in 2002 and 2003. The same type of virus was associated with a similar outbreak of MERS, which was first identified in 2013 in Saudi Arabia.

According to the WHO, MERS has been responsible for about 850 deaths worldwide.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, with some causing less severe disease, like the common cold. Although some easily transmit from person to person, others don’t.

China state media reported that some of the people who fell ill between Dec. 12 and 29 are sellers from a local wholesale seafood market.

That market has since been shut down for cleaning and disinfection, according to the CDC.

“What’s happening over there is in a particular area of China at a seafood market, and… it [first] appears that transmission is from animal to human,” Nikhil Bhayani, an infectious disease physician with Texas Health Resources, told Healthline.

“Corona means ‘crown,’ so these viruses appear crown-shaped when looked at under an electron microscope,” said Bhanu Sud, MD, an infectious disease specialist at St. Jude Medical Center in Placentia, California.

“Most coronaviruses are harmless,” he said. “They’ll usually cause mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. Most people will get infected with these viruses at some point in their lives.”

Sud emphasizes that while the outlook is good for most people infected with this type of virus, the SARS and MERS strains are more serious.

The death rate is around 10 percent for people with SARS and 30 percent for those with the MERS variant.

“What is unknown right now is the virus being typed. They’re doing testing to find out what type of virus this is and whether it’s more similar to SARS or MERS,” Bhayani said. “I have a strong feeling that this is going to be a new virus.”

China has started to shut down flights and trains from Wuhan, effectively quarantining a city of millions, according to reports.

This started during the Lunar New Year holiday, when tens of millions of people often travel home in China.

According to an earlier translated report from the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission:

“Experts advise that the city is currently in the season of high incidence of infectious diseases in winter and spring. Citizens should pay attention to maintaining indoor air circulation, avoiding closed and airless public places and crowded places, and wear masks if necessary.”

Sud said, “Any infection anywhere in the world is always a risk for every country because international travel has become so easy now.”

He adds this is why early detection and quarantine are essential measures in halting the transmission of these infections.

According to Sud, human coronaviruses most commonly transmit from an infected person to others via:

  • the air by coughing and sneezing
  • close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands

“In the United States, people usually get infected with common human coronaviruses in the fall and winter. However, infection can occur at any time of the year,” he said.

“Most people will get infected with one or more of the common human coronaviruses in their lifetime,” he added.

Sud also points out both SARS and MERS outbreaks were from animal-to-human contact, with SARS most likely from contact with bats and MERS from contact with camels.

“Since the organism causing infection is a virus, to date, we don’t have any specific antiviral medications,” Sud said.

Chinese authorities have identified an outbreak of respiratory illness. The CDC has issued a level 3 warning due to the outbreak, notifying travelers they should avoid nonessential travel to the area.

So far, 15 people in the United States have been confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus.

Experts emphasize that since a virus causes the illness, there aren’t any treatments available. The infection can only be allowed to run its course.