Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause disease in mammals and birds. In humans, coronaviruses cause respiratory infections that are typically mild – these include the common cold. Rarer forms of coronavirus infections have led to previous disease pandemics with SARS, MERS and the current novel coronavirus causing the 2019-2020 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. These rarer forms are known to be lethal in many cases and currently there are no vaccines or antiviral drugs that are approved for prevention or treatment.
The strain of coronavirus causing the Wuhan outbreak is classified as a zoonotic pathogen. This means that the first human patient infected with the disease acquired it from an animal. 2019-nCoV, as this strain of coronavirus is known as so far, has somewhat unclear origins. Scientists are unsure as to what the original host of this coronavirus is with snakes, badgers, rats and bats being suggested. Health officials in Beijing have warned that whilst the 2019-nCoV virus is not as lethal as SARS, it mutates much more quickly thus making it more transmissible through populations and more dangerous in that respect.
Humans have always caught diseases from animals, but in the past 50 years or so this is becoming much more prevalent. HIV/AIDS originated from great apes, the 2004-07 avian flu pandemic came from birds, and pigs gave us the swine flu pandemic in 2009. More recently, it was discovered severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) came from bats, via civets, while bats were also the original host of Ebola. Environmental change is increasing the rate at which these diseases emerge and spread. Increased city living and international travel also means that when these diseases emerge in human populations, they spread much more quickly. These diseases have been linked to poorly regulated live animal markets where the animals are all kept in close quarters and the illegal wildlife trade for pets with humans encountering the pathogen through these routes.
So far, two people from the same family in England have tested positive for coronavirus, making these the first confirmed cases of the virus in the UK. The two were taken to Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in its specialist centre, Airborne High Consequences Infectious Disease Centre, where they continue to be treated for coronavirus. Meanwhile, 94 UK nationals and family members have been evacuated from Wuhan and are under quarantine at Arrowe Park Hospital in the Wirral for 14 days. This comes with the news that thousands of passengers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship have been quarantined in their rooms after ten passengers were confirmed to have coronavirus. Almost 300 out of the 3,700 people on board the ship have been tested for coronavirus and the number of infected people on board is expected to rise. Another cruise ship currently docked in Hong Kong has also been quarantined with 3,600 on board.
The most recent data shows that there are around 25,000 cases of coronavirus confirmed with over 500 deaths as a result of the disease. Current measures put in place in the UK to control the spread of the disease includes a procedure called ‘advanced monitoring’. Health professionals are being stationed at Heathrow airport, meeting passengers arriving off planes from China and are providing them with health information, such as the key symptoms to look out for. These measures are set in place for all flights though they are dwindling. The Chinese government stopped all flights from Wuhan and British Airways have suspended all direct flights to and from mainland China. The UK is chartering flights back from Wuhan with passengers having to sign a contract accepting that they must be placed in quarantine for 14 days on landing in the UK to ensure no one exhibits any symptoms of coronavirus without accessing treatment. Officials are also considering taking passengers to a military base once they arrive home for the purposes of being easily able to isolate people in the same place for treatment.