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A type of coronavirus. Image/Public Domain

New coronavirus spreads outside of China, cases triple

A new coronavirus which causes pneumonia has spread to the major Chinese cities of Shanghai and Beijing, and now overseas to Japan.

The coronavirus is believed to have originated from a fish and live-animal market in Wuhan, a central Chinese city with a population of 11 million, infecting dozens of people and, on Saturday, Chinese media reported the first known death from the virus. Since then, two others with underlying medical conditions have died, which was reported to The World Health Organisation (WHO).

As of Monday, a total of 224 cases of pneumonia caused by the coronavirus were reported in China. Of those, 217 had been confirmed and 7 remained suspected, the Xinhua News Agency said.

Overseas, one case was confirmed in Japan, two in Thailand, and one in the Republic of Korea. Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed by China’s National Health Commission. 

Coronaviruses infect humans on a regular basis and are one of a number of viral groups that lead to symptoms that we call the common cold: coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing and fever. 

The coronavirus is an RNA virus, and can mutate, producing strains that are different from those that the immune system “remembers.” This is called antigenic drift and why we get colds every year – the virus changes a bit every season. Antibiotics do not work on viruses and this coronavirus has proved lethal, particularly to people with compromised immune systems.

The 2019-nCoV is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

Probably the best known coronavirus is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly known as SARS, which broke out in Asia in 2003, and spread to countries in North America, South America and Europe, before being successfully contained later that year.

WHO and Chinese authorities are working to control the prevention of the virus – crucial at the moment as containing it will be made more complicated by the Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, which begins on January 25, and sees hundreds of millions criss-crossing the country.

WHO is currently considering whether international measures, like restricting travel, are needed to control this outbreak, Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington told the Science Media Centre.

"If that is the case, then they could declare it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.  We are still several steps away from that point."

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