The rapid spread of a new coronavirus in China has prompted global alarm, with Beijing’s neighbours closing their borders, global airlines suspending flights, and some governments barring entry to foreign nationals who have recently been in China.
The rapidly spreading virus, first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late December, has infected 28,000 people and killed more than 500. The vast majority of the victims have been in China, although the virus has now spread to two dozen countries.
In a bid to limit its spread to countries with weaker health systems, the World Health Organization (WHO) on January 30 declared the new outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. The global health agency, however, criticised the international travel curbs and flight suspensions against China, telling governments such measures must be “short in duration” and “proportionate”.
So just how dangerous is the new coronavirus, and how worried should you be?
The simple answer is we don’t know enough yet and we won’t know until more data comes in.
But the key factors, according to experts, are how contagious the new virus is and what proportion of infected people become severely ill.
The new coronavirus, labelled 2019-nCoV and thought to have originated in a seafood market in Wuhan, is part of a family of viruses that include the common cold and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which also originated in China in 2002.
It spreads primarily through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and can also be transmitted via contaminated surfaces.
According to statistics from China, about two percent of people infected with the 2019-nCoV have died so far. In comparison, some 10 percent of the 8,437 people infected with SARS during the 2002-2003 outbreak died, while the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012, has a fatality rate of about 35 percent.