What we know so far about the new coronavirus

A new strain of coronavirus, first reported in China in January, is being closely monitored by health authorities. Here’s what you need to know about the respiratory illness.

In early January, reports flagged an emerging virus in China that was being carefully monitored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other health authorities.

By January 22, Chinese authorities reported that 440 people had contracted the respiratory virus – called 2019-nCoV, or novel coronavirus – and nine people had died.

Since then, at least four cases have been reported in Australia, and it has also spread to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S.

What is coronavirus?

2019-nCoV is a new strain of coronavirus. Previous strains include severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that killed 774 people in the early 2000s, and the MERS virus – or “camel flu” – that emerged in the Middle East in 2012.

“Coronaviruses include common cold viruses and viruses causing more severe respiratory disease and transmitted from animals like SARS and MERS,” explains Dr Mike Catton, deputy director of the Doherty Institute.

Symptoms of coronavirus

Dr Catton says the symptoms of this latest virus are flu-like. They include:

  • High fever
  • Pneumonia
  • Cough
  • Chills
  • Respiratory distress

How does coronavirus spread?

WHO says novel coronavirus is linked to a seafood market in Wuhan where live animals destined for human consumption infected workers and visitors.

Since then, health authorities believe the virus has probably been transmitted from person to person, but authorities are uncertain how easily the virus spreads.

“With respiratory infections generally, there is a spectrum of severity,” says Dr Catton.

“Typically, the cases detected first are the bad ones because they go to hospital while milder cases are in the community but not detected. It is possible that, as well as the initial severe cases, there are less severe infections.”

What does coronavirus mean for travellers and Australians?

In a statement, Australian chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy says “there is no cause for alarm in Australia”.

“The World Health Organisation position does not currently recommend any travel advisory for China, or additional measures at airports beyond our established mechanisms,” he says.

“Under Australian legislation, airlines must report passengers on board showing signs of an infectious disease, including fever, sweats or chills.

“Planes reporting ill travellers are met on arrival by biosecurity officers who make an assessment and take necessary actions, such as isolation and referral to hospital where required.”

As of January 23, the Australian Government recommends that people reconsider any plans to travel to or from Wahun City in China.

If visiting an area where the disease has been reported, and if you’re travelling with children, are pregnant or have a weak immune system, see your doctor before travelling.

Reducing the risks of coronavirus

There is no specific treatment for coronaviruses. In mild cases, symptoms ease but pain medication, rest and drinking plenty of fluids can help.

“Do the things you’d do to reduce the spread of flu,” says Dr Catton.

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water.
  • Carry hand sanitiser and use it often.
  • Keep a distance from people if they have a cough, fever or difficulty breathing.
  • When travelling, avoid high-risk areas such as farms, live animal markets and areas where animals are slaughtered.
  • If you come into contact with animals or animal products, don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth until you have thoroughly cleaned your hands.

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Written by Sarah Marinos.