The Science Behind the Wuhan Coronavirus

Coronavirus visualisation. Source: Scientific Animations (CC BY-SA 4.0)

by Christina Fowler

Fear and speculation have been on the rise about the Wuhan Coronavirus ever since death tolls and infection rates began to rise. At the time of writing, 81 people have died of the infection whilst over 2,500 people are infected across 14 countries. However, as with any news hype, there are always incorrect rumours and fears but it’s only by reviewing the science of the virus that the truth can be seen. 

With all it’s publicity it’s unlikely you haven’t heard about the deadly outbreak occurring in eastern China caused by a novel coronavirus. A coronavirus is a type of virus that is round and looks a lot like a Christmas wreath without the festivity. It is part of the same family of viruses that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), however, at present is showing a lower fatality rate. 

The Wuhan coronavirus (or 2019-nCoV) is causing pneumonia, however, current antivirals are not effective against the virus. The biggest task for scientists at present is developing a vaccine against the virus to protect large populations if it spreads further.

Coronavirus outbreaks have previously been due to zoonoses, a term meaning they have transferred from an animal to a human. Initially it was believed that the virus originated in a fish species due to the prevalence of infected people at a market in Wuhan, however, investigations into patient zero (the first patient with the infection) suggests that this is not true. Research is currently underway as to what this animal was as this will aid in treatment development. The most likely candidate at present is the bat, the same animal that is thought to have started the SARS outbreak. 

Human to human transmission has just been confirmed by the Chinese national health commission, although how easily this occurs is still unknown but is a key point of research. One of the major fears of this infection is evidence suggesting that transmission can occur up to a week before symptoms present, meaning that infected people are more likely to spread the disease as they are not aware they have it. 

The biggest concern has been that the virus has appeared around the biggest holiday in China, the lunar new year. This means that large amounts of people are moving around the country and travelling from the city to their families in remote places and fears that this will spread the disease further are high. 

Never-before-seen control measures have been put in place in mainland China to try and stop the spread of the disease resulting in a lockdown on cities so people cannot travel. The biggest worry is the underestimate of the people infected according to the Chinese government; predictions of 100,000 cases are being reported by Imperial College London. Here in the UK, only two have been seen, however people are urged to be cautious and vigilant in this time of unknowns.


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