What is known about the mysterious pneumonia outbreak in China

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Wuhan is about 200 miles south of Beijing and is a major transportation hub in the country.

Wuhan is about 200 miles south of Beijing and is a major transportation hub in China.

On New Year’s Eve, an infectious disease story emerged from China involving a mysterious pneumonia that has sickened dozens and raised alarm bells across Asia.

While the Chinese government says the outbreak, which began on Dec. 12, hasn’t resulted in any deaths, the strange illnesses are a cause of concern because China was the epicenter of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003. SARS sickened 3,100 people and killed 774 in 37 countries in less than a year.

What is known so far is that 59 people in the city of Wuhan, China, have been sickened with a severe respiratory infection, that has been identified as a new strain of a coronavirus, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Wuhan is about 200 miles south of Beijing and is a major transportation hub in the country. Because it is a center of transportation, a new infectious disease outbreak could spread rapidly from China to other countries.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses including the pathogen that caused SARS, as well as MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus)

Virus researchers say there are six known coronaviruses tied to human illness, four of which cause the common cold. Of the two others, one causes SARS and the other causes MERS. Illnesses from coronaviruses are emerging infectious diseases and likely have a zoonotic source. Around 75% of new diseases come from pathogens that jump from animals to people.

China says the coronavirus is linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, which was shut down in early January for cleaning. At the market, exotic animals, which are a delicacy in China, are sold. In 2003, the SARS outbreak was tied to civet cats and raccoon dogs, animals that are a delicacy in China. They were sold in a market where SARS likely originated.

“Before SARS emerged, coronaviruses were typically known as nuisance viruses in agriculture and pets, but over the last two decades, they have become game changers, given that the some of the newly identified ones can cause severe disease,” Tim Sheahan, Ph.D., a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health, told Lisa Schnirring, a news editor at CIDRAP.

Developing specific drugs and vaccines to treat the new virus is likely to take years to complete, according to Gary Shih and Lena Sun at the Washington Post.

So far, there are few signs that the virus transmits easily between humans, which means that the outbreak has a higher chance of being quickly contained. No health care workers have gotten sick from the new disease and it is usually health care workers that are among the first people to develop illness from a new pathogen, according to Helen Branswell at Stat News.

Still, some experts question whether China is withholding information about the outbreak. During the SARS outbreak, China was initially reluctant to release information, which likely resulted in more people becoming infected with the virus.

CIDRAP’s Schnirring, who spoke with AHCJ for a “How I Did It” on covering this outbreak, says public health officials want to know the age of those sickened and more about how the pathogen jumped from animal to people.

“I think, in the next few days, China will come out with more information hopefully about the [ill] patients,” she said.

Among the ways to stay on top of this outbreak: follow Lisa Schnirring (@lisaschnirring), and reporters Helen Branswell (@helenbranswell) and Lena Sun (@bylenasun) on Twitter.

And see Schnirring’s HIDI for more resources on covering infectious disease outbreaks.

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