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Coronavirus deaths overtake Sars as global toll rises to at least 800

Coronavirus deaths overtake Sars as global toll rises to at least 800

What is the virus causing the illness in Wuhan?
It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city, which also sold live and newly slaughtered animals.

Have there been other coronaviruses?
New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?
The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?
China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere. As of 9 February, there have been at least 800 deaths from the virus worldwide. Infections inside China stand at almost 37,200 and global infections have passed 280 in 28 countries. The mortality rate is 2%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, a third person was diagnosed with it in Brighton, and a fourth is being treated in London, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can. Five new cases in France are British nationals, and British nationals are also among the 64 cases on a cruise liner off Japan.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?
We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.


Another key unknown, of which scientists should get a clearer idea in the coming weeks, is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?
Anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last two weeks and is experiencing cough or fever or shortness of breath should stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild, the NHS advises.

Is the outbreak a pandemic?
Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

Should we panic?
No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Healthcare workers could be at risk if they unexpectedly came across someone with respiratory symptoms who had travelled to an affected region. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.

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The death toll from the coronavirus has surpassed that of the Sars epidemic, with at least 800 people dead, as an Alps resort emerged as the centre of a cluster of new British cases.

With 89 more deaths in China on Saturday, the toll is now higher than the 774 killed worldwide by severe acute respiratory syndrome. The majority of people who have been killed, 780, are from Hubei province.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the last four days had seen “some stabilising” in Hubei, but it warned that the figures could still “shoot up”. Almost 37,200 people in China have now been infected by the virus, which is believed to have emerged late last year in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan. Residents there are now struggling to get daily supplies because of sweeping transport restrictions and instructions to stay inside.


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In the UK, a plane carrying British citizens evacuated from Wuhan landed in Oxfordshire on Sunday. The flight, with more than 200 people onboard including some foreign nationals, arrived at RAF Brize Norton shortly before 7.30am.

The Foreign Office said it was the second and final flight to be chartered by the UK and had government staff and military medics onboard. The passengers were being taken to the Kents Hill Park hotel and conference centre in Milton Keynes to be quarantined for 14 days.

Spain confirmed its second case of the disease after a British national living in Mallorca tested positive for the virus. The country’s National Microbiology Centre said test results had confirmed the case in the early hours of Sunday morning. The man is thought to have contracted the virus after coming into contact with a person who recently tested positive for the illness in France.

The Balearic Islands health department said the British man, his wife and two daughters had gone to Mallorca’s Son Espases hospital on Friday after one of them began feeling ill.

The infected man is being kept in isolation, and his wife and children have tested negative for the coronavirus and are displaying no symptoms.

A spokesman for Spain’s health ministry said the man had previously been at a French ski resort where a cluster of cases have been detected.

Five Britons including a nine-year-old child have tested positive for the virus in France. Another six UK nationals are being kept under observation in French hospitals.

The group had been staying in two apartments in a ski chalet in the village of Contamines-Montjoie in the eastern French Alps when they were visited by a Briton who had been in Singapore and was found to have the virus when he returned to the UK at the end of last month.

The French health minister, Agnès Buzyn, visited the ski resort on Sunday as officials went into damage-limitation mode at the start of the school half-term holidays. The period is the busiest time of the year for French mountain resorts, and tourist officials in the Haute-Savoie region sought to calm the growing sense of panic.

“We’ve had many phone calls this morning. There are a few cancellations; people are panicking a little and asking where the contaminated people have been. It’s normal,” said Annick Roger, the director of the Contamines-Montjoie tourist office.

There was little sign of panic on Sunday in the village near Mont Blanc, whose population is swelled by tourists every winter high season. Olivier Campion, a French visitor to the resort, told Agence France-Presse: “I was supposed to go to China for work and I postponed by visit. Instead, I didn’t have to go so far to find the virus.”

Eric Paris, who runs the village pharmacy, said there had been a sudden demand for face masks, but he was refusing to hand them out. “It’s been 14 days and the incubation period has passed. If everyone starts walking around in masks, can you imagine the trauma?” he said.

He added: “I’ve consulted the regional health authorities and the town hall and there has been no instructions. Everyone who might have been contaminated in Contamines has already been. Just because someone is full of aches after a day skiing doesn’t mean they have the coronavirus.”

Authorities set up a crisis centre in the village and said a school that the infected nine-year-old attended and a second school in nearby Saint-Gervais, where the child spent an afternoon taking an extra French lesson, would remain shut next week.

Spain confirmed its first case of coronavirus on 31 January after a man was diagnosed on the remote La Gomera island in the Canaries. The patient is part of a group of five people in isolation and under observation on the island after it emerged that they had come into contact with a German man diagnosed with the virus.

More than 37,100 people are now confirmed to have been infected worldwide, with a jump of 2,147 in Hubei since Friday. Deaths include that of a doctor, Li Wenliang, who was one of the first people to raise the alarm about the virus.

The only people to have died outside the Chinese mainland are a Chinese man who died in the Philippines and a 39-year-old in Hong Kong.

The Sars outbreak killed 774 people worldwide in 2002-03. The new virus is believed to have emerged in a market that sells wild animals in Wuhan, before spreading across the country. In response to the outbreak, the Chinese government sealed off the city in late January.

The final UK evacuation flight from Wuhan left on Saturday. Anyone displaying symptoms would not have been permitted to board the plane in Wuhan, and those who flew was to be assessed again on landing, UK authorities said. Anyone developing symptoms on the flight would be isolated.

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