A new strain of coronavirus sweeps through China with cases reported in several countries including the US, Japan, Thailand and South Korea

At 10:00 local time this morning, the eastern Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, was placed under lockdown. All outbound flights, trains and public transport within the city are indefinitely cancelled. Two more cities, Huanggang and Ezhou, are now following suit with a lockdown being imposed from midnight tonight. Chiba, a fourth city, has announced that they too will be introducing travel restrictions. These cities combined have a population reaching over 20 million people.

Additional concerns arise as the outbreak has arisen just before the Lunar New Year, one of the busiest travel periods in China, which could increase the rate of spread of the virus. As a result of this, several state-run events and festivities celebrating the new year have been cancelled. Currently, over 630 people have been confirmed to have the virus and 17 people are reported to have died, all from Wuhan. This number is increasing rapidly with the figures from Tuesday being at over 300 cases and six deaths. Yet, there are concerns that the number of cases could be much higher, with certain health organisations calling for greater transparency and faster updates from Chinese authorities so that they can make further advances on characterising the virus. The World Health Organisation met on Wednesday but are yet to declare this outbreak a global health emergency. The Director General of the WHO stated the committee was split but that ultimately there is not yet enough information on the new strain. While monitoring the outbreak closely, more work must be done to determine how transmissible the virus is and what actions are being done to contain it.

What do we know about the virus?

Coronavirus is a family of viruses characterised by the spike-like shape of projections on their surface. The ability of viruses to mutate and evolve has meant that this novel 2019 coronavirus, as it is currently known, is not yet well characterised.

As the infection is viral, it cannot be treated with antibiotics. There are no current vaccines or specific treatments to the virus, and it is believed it originated from a seafood market in Wuhan and has spread from animals to humans. Infection with the virus causes pneumonia, giving flu-like symptoms but deaths are most likely to be in individuals already in poor health, or with compromised immune systems such as the elderly. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that the novel virus can be transmitted from human to human by coughing and sneezing, close personal contact and touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your nose or mouth before washing hands.

At the moment, the incubation time of the virus and time of onset are unknown. Finding these would be key to effective quarantining and containment of the virus.

Current fear is that this outbreak could mimic the SARS outbreak of late 2002-early 2003. This was the outbreak of another strain of coronavirus which spread globally, killing 774 people. With all viruses, the ability to mutate as they are spread is increased, potentially making them more deadly as they adapt and evade treatment.

How will this affect us?

While there are no cases currently reported in the UK, the country is on high alert and it is “increasingly likely” the outbreak could spread here, according to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock. The risk to the UK population has been raised from “very low” to “low” but he ensures that the country is well-equipped to deal with any cases here. Two police stations were closed in Bristol on Wednesday night after police officers became concerned they may have come into contact with the virus after detaining a Chinese traveller with flu-like symptoms. They are not believed to be infected.

In Oxford, the Internship Office have already suspended the internship at the China-EU Institute for Clean and Renewable Energy (based in Wuhan, Hubei) after the Foreign and Commonwealth Office updated their travel advice and are “advising against all but essential travel to Wuhan.”