New China virus: Five questions scientists are asking | 1/22/2020 | Ewen Callaway
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Health authorities around the world are worried about an outbreak of a mysterious virus that originated in Wuhan, China, last month. Officials there have confirmed more than 500 cases of the infection, which causes a respiratory illness, and 17 deaths. Several cases have been spotted elsewhere in Asia and one in the United States.

Researchers are racing to learn more about the virus and to discover whether it has the potential to cause an outbreak similar to the 2002–03 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which emerged in southern China and killed 774 people in 37 countries. Both are members of a large virus family, called coronaviruses, that also includes those responsible for the common cold.

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Efforts to understand the outbreak are especially crucial, because mass travel from Friday for the Chinese New Year holiday could spread the virus farther and faster.

How does the virus spread?

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The most urgent question surrounding the outbreak is determining how it spreads. Chinese authorities have confirmed that some cases have been caused by transmission between humans, but it’s still unclear whether this can happen routinely.

“What’s critical to understand is whether that’s occurring at a rate and with a level of efficiency which would sustain a human epidemic,” says Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Imperial College London. Monitoring the rate at which new cases appear, and when symptoms began for each case, should tell scientists how easily the virus can pass between humans and whether the outbreak has the potential to persist.


How deadly is the virus?

High rates of pneumonia among the first people infected had many researchers worried that the Wuhan virus was especially pernicious. Those concerns have receded slightly, as more mild cases turn up. With at least 17 deaths in more than 500 cases, the virus does not seem to be as deadly as...
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