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Everything We Know About the Coronavirus Epidemic

Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The spread of a mysterious pneumonia-like coronavirus, which appears to have originated in the city of Wuhan in China, has been met with international alarm as more cases are being reported: Over 2,000 people worldwide have reportedly died from the virus, with around 74,500 infections recorded globally — the vast majority of them in China.

At a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 30, the World Health Organization declared “a public health emergency of international concern” over the coronavirus outbreak.

“We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, praising China’s swift response in reporting the virus and emphasizing that the decision was “not a vote of no confidence” in the country, but a global precaution. “We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.”

In late January, Chinese officials began implementing a partial quarantine around Wuhan, a city with an estimated population of 11 million people. As of February 6, Wuhan was under a military-style lockdown, with authorities going house-to-house and moving infected people to giant quarantine centers.

Despite the virus’s rampant spread, WHO only announced the official name for the disease this virus causes in mid-February: COVID-19, which stands for Coronavirus Disease and the year the first case appeared (2019). The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, meanwhile, proposes the virus itself be called SARS-CoV-2, due to its close resemblance to the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Here’s what you should know about COVID-19.

What is a coronavirus?

According to the CDC, coronaviruses are “common throughout the world,” and they “commonly cause mild to moderate illness.” However, newer strains of the virus — such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — “have been known to frequently cause severe illness.” There are currently no vaccines developed that prevent against this family of viruses.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Wuhan strain of coronavirus is only the seventh type reported to have infected humans. Per the Washington Post, it was first detected on December 31 in a case suspected to have originated at a food market in the area.

What are the symptoms of this strain of coronavirus?

Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include fever, coughing, and difficulty breathing. The virus is thought to have spread from an animal source to humans. According to the Guardian, “Recovery will depend on the strength of [the patient’s] immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.”

Zhong Nanshan, who leads a group of experts at China’s National Health Commission, told the Washington Post that the best way to combat the spread of the virus is quarantine, because it “spreads by droplets from the nose and mouth.” However, recent reports indicate that the virus could be infectious before people start to show symptoms, and the CDC also suspects that it may be transmittable via fecal matter: Contaminated water, food, and hands could allow the virus to enter the body through the mouth, nose, and eyes.

Zhong also cautioned, “There’s no specific drug to treat the infection at the moment.”

How many cases have been confirmed?

As of February 20, at least 74,546 infections had been reported worldwide, the vast majority of them in mainland China. There, the new infection rate appears to have slowed over the past few days, after spiking suddenly last week when health officials changed reporting criteria.

Globally, though, the numbers have been steadily climbing for weeks, with cases confirmed in 29 countries and territories in addition to China: the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, France, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Germany, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, Finland, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Iran.

So far, most of the 2,118 reported deaths have occurred in China. As of February 20, seven deaths had been reported elsewhere.

How many cases have there been in the U.S.?

The U.S. confirmed 15 cases of COVID-19 on February 13, with patients testing positive in Texas, Washington state, California, Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. None of the infections within the U.S. have proved fatal, although a U.S. citizen did die in Wuhan. On February 20, CNBC reported that the FBI bought $40,000 worth of hand sanitizer and face masks, “in case the coronavirus becomes a pandemic in the United States.”

The U.S. government has also been evacuating Americans from Wuhan, the first 195 of whom were released on February 11. They had been under mandatory quarantine for two weeks — the virus’s suspected incubation period — at March Air Reserve Base in California, while other groups remain confined on military bases in other parts of California, Texas, and Nebraska.

What’s going on with coronavirus on cruise ships?

A number of Americans were also quarantined for coronavirus infection on cruise ships: The number of infections aboard the Diamond Princess ultimately rose above 600, and as of February 20, two of those people — a Japanese couple in their 80s — had died. The ship docked in the port of Yokohama on February 4 and on February 16, the U.S. began evacuating American passengers who passed a health screening. Against the CDC’s wishes, the State Department put 14 infected passengers on the same plane as over 300 uninfected people and flew them back. The CDC urges all Americans aboard the Diamond Princess to get screened, and everyone is being held at the Travis Air Force base in California.

In Cambodia, health officials raced to identify all the Holland America’s MS Westerdam passengers who came in contact with a U.S. woman who tested positive for coronavirus after leaving the ship. The Westerdam had no reported cases of the virus as it traveled from port to port, looking for a place for passengers disembark, with Japan, Guam, and Thailand all turning it away. On February 14, it docked in Cambodia, where an 83-year-old woman and 145 other people got off and flew to Malaysia. She reportedly started feeling sick in the Kuala Lumpur airport, and subsequently received a diagnosis. In the interim, however, many of her fellow travelers moved on to their next destinations. According to the Washington Post, though, no additional passengers have tested positive so far.

Are there any travel precautions?

Given all the cruise ship chaos, Norwegian Cruise Lines announced Thursday that it would cancel all planned trips in Asia through the summer — some 24 voyages — and would call back all its ships currently in the region.

As the number of confirmed cases rises, some airlines are suspending flights between mainland China and other countries. Delta has suspended all flights to and from China from February 6 through April 30, at the earliest. American Airlines has suspended flights to and from China and Hong Kong through late April (April 23 or 24, depending on the route). United won’t resume Hong Kong service until February 20, and won’t fly to Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai until March 28.

Declaring a public health emergency on January 31, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar announced that beginning on Sunday, February 2, all passengers on flights to the U.S. who have been in Hubei province within the past 14 days will spend an equal amount of time in quarantine. U.S. citizens who have visited other parts of mainland China will undergo a risk assessment and symptom screening at one of seven airports in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta. Those who do not chart symptoms will be allowed to continue their travels, although they will still be isolated and monitored by their local health departments when they reach their destinations.

Also on January 31, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation “temporarily suspending the entry into the United States of foreign nationals” who have traveled to China within the past 14 days.

Chinese officials have placed Hubei province on lockdown, along with 30 million people in the coastal province of Zhejiang, about 500 miles away. Fear of the virus has also interfered with trade, but so far, the U.S. is not quarantining goods imported from China.

This post has been updated with additional information.

Everything We Know About the Coronavirus Epidemic