The Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan

There is evidence of human to human transmission by direct contact, but the risk in the UK is low says Dr Gary McLean, Professor in Molecular Immunology.

Date: 23 January 2020

The recent outbreak of coronavirus infections in Wuhan China has seen local health officials and the World Health Organisation (WHO) coordinating efforts to contain the spread of the virus to avoid a repeat of the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed nearly 800 people – also caused by a coronavirus and originating in China.

This new coronavirus, termed 2019-nCoV, is thought to have spread to humans from animals found in a live animal market in Wuhan during December 2019. Authorities were first alerted to an outbreak of unknown causes due to an abnormal cluster of pneumonia cases in the region. Since then, the virus has been identified with its genome sequenced and laboratory-confirmed cases have reached over 400 with 19 deaths, although epidemiological models suggest there may be closer to 2000 cases. Cases have also been recorded in several other Asian countries and also the USA but the vast majority of cases centre around Wuhan. There is evidence of human to human transmission of the virus by direct contact but not yet outside of the Wuhan region.

The virus infects the lungs and initial symptoms will appear very similar to the common cold, which coronaviruses can also cause, but rapidly becomes more severe in susceptible individuals progressing to shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. There is no vaccine nor is there a specific antiviral drug, therefore the therapeutic options that remain are treating the symptoms and isolating the serious cases to avoid spread. Wuhan city authorities have taken the unprecedented step of closing the airport and shutting down public transit in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. This comes at a time when many are travelling and gathering for Chinese New Year celebrations.

The risk in the UK remains low. However, Public Health England is monitoring flight arrivals at Heathrow from Wuhan. Flights are arriving at a designated region of terminal 4 and passengers undergo health screening tests to identify potential carriers of the virus. It remains to be seen whether this outbreak will mirror or even eclipse the SARS outbreak of 17 years ago. There are likely to be many more cases but a coordinated network of policies and practices put in place by global health officials and the WHO will hopefully contain the spread and avoid a global pandemic. Critical to this effort will be a deeper understanding of the virus properties and nature of transmission between humans.

Photograph of Dr Gary McLean