Stranded Brits have been told to abandon their loved ones and get to a deserted airport as the military prepares to land in Wuhan and evacuate UK citizens from the coronavirus-hit city.
Chinese officials yesterday blocked the UK’s first attempt to fly its citizens home from Wuhan and fears are growing that Brits will be among the last ones left after other countries mount successful rescue efforts.
The US and Japan have already pulled out their people – Japan has sent two planes already and is considering a third, while the US plans its second – and other nations including Turkey, France and Spain are finalising plans.
But the UK faces backlash from desperate would-be evacuees left waiting in limbo, telling them only that they will be updated when they need to get to the airport and unable to confirm where in Britain they will be flying to.
Family members with dual Chinese citizenship must be left behind, luggage should be kept to a minimum and anyone showing signs of illness will be turned away at the airport.
Government sources say the RAF will crew the plane and army medics will look after the passengers, before they arrive at a military base. Plans have reportedly been made to take people to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
British expats trapped in Wuhan have been told officials will email and text them the flight details when the Government gets permission from China – which has already let the US and Japan evacuate residents.
People with places on the flight said the British Government’s arrangement has been a ‘shambles’ and added they have heard more from the media than from Number 10.
A former Labour Foreign Office minister today told MailOnline the Government’s approach seemed ‘negligent’ and painted the country as a victim.
The US and Japan have already managed to send evacuation flights to Wuhan and remove hundreds of their citizens.
International developments in the Wuhan coronavirus crisis today include:
- The number of cases has jumped to more than 7,800 and 170 people have died in China
- India today declared its first case, making it the 21st country or territory outside of China to do so
- Three Japanese people taken home on the evacuation flight have been diagnosed with the coronavirus
Medical workers are pictured pulling someone suspected to have the coronavirus out of an apartment building in Wuhan today, January 30
The number of coronavirus cases around the world has soared overnight to more than 7,800, 170 people are now dead in China, and India has today become the latest country to declare an infection
People disembark a cargo plane sent to Wuhan by the US to pull its citizens out of the coronavirus-hit city
Japan has already managed to send a second plane to Wuhan to evacuate its citizens – the plane is pictured after landing in Tokyo today, January 30
Hazmat-wearing workers are seen on a runway in Tokyo for the first flight to carry Japanese nationals out of the crisis-hit Wuhan
A Turkish Air Forces cargo plane is pictured on a runway in Ankara today, January 30 – it will be flown to Wuhan to fly Turkish citizens home
A plane is pictured on a runway in Beja, Portugal, as it is prepared for a flight to Wuhan at the weekend to evacuate European citizens from various countries
Details are scant about the plans being made to pull British citizens out of Wuhan.
Anthony May-Smith, who has had his bags packed for days, told Sky News he does not know when he’s expected to be at the airport in Wuhan.
‘I’ve spoken to the consul two or three times today it’s still been the same answers,’ he said. ‘To be honest, I’ve probably heard more things off the news and just off friends and family than the Foreign Office itself.’
Mr May-Smith, who is in Wuhan visiting his girlfriend, said he was told he’d get ‘plenty of notice’ to make his way to a checkpoint 2 miles (3km) from the airport before being taken by bus to the runway.
He added: ‘At the moment I’m feeling fine, I’m just a bit worried about trying to get to the airport itself, if I’m honest.
‘There’s a travel ban inside the city itself … you physically cannot get a taxi to get there so that’s a challenge that I don’t think they’ve really thought about for anybody here.’
A source inside Downing Street yesterday told the Press Association people who would have been boarding the flight on Thursday had already agreed to be put in ‘assisted isolation’.
The Government source said: ‘We are expecting about 200 British nationals to be on board, there is capacity on the flight for everybody.
‘On arrival passengers will be safely isolated for two weeks with all necessary medical attention.’
People will be responsible for making their own way to the airport in Wuhan through a deserted city without any functioning public transport and with police roadblocks and traffic stops throughout the Hubei province.
Wuhan is bigger than London and home to 11million people but has been left a barren wasteland by the government shutdown which began last week.
Anthony May-Smith told Sky News he has been waiting for days to hear confirmation of the UK evacuation flight but still doesn’t know when he is expected to be at the airport
Ben Pinkerton, pictured, is a British teacher from Northern Ireland and living Wuhan. He said it is ‘nerve-wracking’ to be in the city at the moment and the evacuation arrangements seem like a ‘shambles’
Jeff Siddle, his wife Sindy and their nine-year-old daughter Jasmine will be torn apart because officials in Beijing won’t allow his Chinese wife on the British evacuation flight, but Mr Siddle and his daughter will travel
Veronica Theobald, 81, is stranded in Wuhan with her grandson Kharn Lambert (pictured together on This Morning yesterday). Ms Theobald is expected to fly home but Mr Lampard will stay in China
English mother Nathalie Francis said she will not leave Wuhan because the UK Government said it couldn’t take her three-year-old son, who is a Chinese citizen. She said: ‘I don’t know anyone who has contracted the virus but we have been inside for days, the atmosphere is very scary and everything is becoming overwhelming and stressful’
In a desperate plea for help, Tom Williams (pictured with his wife, Lauren, and son, James) published an open letter on Twitter to say: ‘I just want to try and share our story so I can try and get my wife, son and unborn child safely out of the city’. It is not clear whether the family will be on the flight
WHICH COUNTRIES HAVE ALREADY EVACUATED THEIR RESIDENTS FROM WUHAN?
The US launched an emergency mission to repatriate 240 citizens yesterday, with a flight out of Wuhan Tianhe International Airport.
On board the flight, which left before dawn local time, was diplomats from the US Consulate as well as other American citizens. One British dual national also boarded the flight. It is unclear whether any medics were on board to monitor passengers for signs of infection.
It made a refuelling stop in Alaska and was due to fly on to Ontario, California – but it has since been diverted to March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California, where it is expected to land in the next few hours.
Passengers were screened before initially boarding in Wuhan, and then went through follow-up checks at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Alaska. The will be screened again once they arrive in California. It is thought they will be quarantined for at least 72 hours.
The Chinese partners of US citizens were banned from the rescue flight, reportedly at the demand of Beijing.
Japanese officials also chartered a flight from Wuhan Tianhe International Airport to rescue 206 citizens stuck in the coronavirus-hit city.
The plane landed back at Haneda Airport in Tokyo this morning at around 9am local time after flying to Wuhan overnight.
The flight was carrying emergency relief supplies including 15,000 masks, 50,000 pairs of gloves and 8,000 protective glasses for medics in Wuhan. Around four medical officials were also on board to monitor returning passengers.
Officials confirmed passengers would be tested for the coronavirus strain. Japan Times the evacuees would be asked to remain at home and isolate themselves to prevent the potential spread.
France’s health minister Agnes Buzyn confirmed a plane will be sent for its stranded citizens on Thursday, to return home on Friday or Saturday. No further details have been given.
There are some 800 French citizens stranded in the Wuhan area. She said French nationals will be held in quarantine for two weeks on arrival to stop the virus spreading on home soil.
The European Union meanwhile said it would co-fund an airlift effort at France’s request, so that more than 100 nationals from other EU nations could be repatriated along with French citizens.
Australia is planning to evacuate its citizens from the epicentre of the deadly virus outbreak in China and quarantine them on an island used to detain asylum seekers.
No confirmed details have been given, with officials still thrashing out details with Chinese officials. But it is thought Australia will work with New Zealand on the operation and would seek to help Pacific nations evacuate their citizens where possible.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said they would be held in quarantine for 14 days on Christmas Island, known for its notorious immigration detention centre used to detain asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat.
Morrison said ‘vulnerable’ Australians – including children and the elderly – and short-term visitors to Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province would be prioritised in extraction efforts.
WHO ELSE IS PLANNING ON EVACUATING RESIDENTS FROM WUHAN?
India Local media reported the Indian government will request clearance from Beijing to take more than 250 citizens out of Wuhan and that a Boeing 747 in Mumbai is on standby.
Indonesia Jakarta said there are more than 230 Indonesians in China – roughly 100 in Wuhan and the rest in Hubei province. The foreign ministry said yesterday it has yet to decide on an evacuation plan.
Malaysia Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said this morning that Kuala Lumpur was keen to send a plane to Wuhan to evacuate some 78 Malaysians stranded in the city.
Philippines The foreign ministry said today it would evacuate citizens in Hubei on a chartered flight, and asked nationals in the area to contact the Shanghai consulate.
Sri Lanka Colombo said yesterday there were roughly 860 Sri Lankan students in China. The foreign ministry said it is awaiting a response from the Chinese authorities to operate a Sri Lankan airlines charter flight to Wuhan to evacuate some 32 Sri Lankan students and their relatives.
South Korea Seoul will send chartered planes to Wuhan this week, the foreign ministry said, to return hundreds of its citizens to South Korea on Thursday and Friday.
Thailand Thailand’s premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha said yesterday the country was waiting for authorisation from Chinese officials before evacuating people, but that aircraft and doctors were on standby.
Germany Berlin has not confirmed any evacuation plan but said it is considering options for roughly 90 citizens reportedly in Wuhan.
Spain Spanish officials are working with China and the European Union to take Spanish nationals out of the area, the foreign minister said.
Algeria President Abdelmadjid Tebboune has asked the government to take all measures needed to bring home 36 Algerians, most of them students, living in Wuhan, according to state agency APS.
Morocco About 100 people, mostly students in Wuhan, will be evacuated, according to local media.Ms
If passengers manage that leg of the journey in time – they reportedly will be emailed and texted a time by the Foreign Office – they will be met by officials, potentially armed soldiers, at the airport.
Once in the care of staff at the airport, the British passengers will probably have their temperatures checked to see whether any of them have a fever. If they show signs of viral infection they will be turned away at the airport.
On the plane, all flight attendants will likely be wearing face masks in a thoroughly disinfected cabin, which will probably have cleaning products on board for people to use during the long-haul journey.
Commercial flights between London and Wuhan typically take around 13 hours, split across two legs. The passengers will endure this alongside strangers, any one of whom could be infected with the coronavirus.
It’s not clear whether the plane will go to an RAF airstrip, rumoured to be Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, or whether people will be taken from a cordoned-off area of a public airport such as Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted.
Japanese people who were evacuated by their own nation were met on the runway by coaches which then ferried them away from the airport.
Once out of the airport and at the quarantine location the passengers are expected to be confined and looked after at an NHS facility by Army medics.
They won’t be allowed out in public for two weeks – this is likely because scientists have worked out the virus has an incubation period of around that long.
An incubation period is the time between someone becoming infected and starting to show symptoms. During this time someone could be contagious without knowing they’re sick, making them extra dangerous.
Details emerging about the flight have been hazy and largely unconfirmed by the Government.
Ben Pinkerton, a teacher from Dungannon, Northern Ireland, is stuck in Wuhan and told MailOnline he was cooped up in his flat in the city waiting to arrange a way home on the evacuation flight.
He said earlier that the Government had given him ‘very little practical advice’ and he wasn’t sure when he was supposed to be heading to the airport – or how.
‘We were told that an evacuation was happening Thursday morning, but we haven’t been given a time or anything,’ he said. ‘It’s quite nerve wracking, just sitting here waiting.
‘A vague time doesn’t help us. We have travel arrangements planned with the company we work with, but the driver needs rest and we can’t assure him of what time we get picked up. The whole arrangement seems like a shambles.’
Mr Pinkerton added that morale among British people in the city seemed high but that he figured their families at home would be worried.
He said: ‘I implore those at the top to think not only of us but also our families still at home. In the majority of cases I would wager they are more worried than we are and want nothing more than their relatives to return to safety.’
British PE teacher Kharn Lambert, who has since decided he won’t come back on the flight, told Sky News: ‘This morning I was on the phone to the embassy and they’ve basically told us via a script they were given by the Foreign Office that the flight will be leaving tomorrow, they’re not sure what time.’
Mr Lambert said he decided to stay in Wuhan so he didn’t ‘put everybody’s health at risk’ but said his grandmother would have to fly home because she was frail.
British teacher Jeff Siddle is among those due to be evacuated from Wuhan with his nine-year-old daughter Jasmine.
But Chinese officials are reportedly barring his wife Sindy, a Chinese citizen, from boarding the rescue flight.
Mr Siddle’s family flew to Hubei province to spend time with his partner’s relatives and celebrate the Chinese New Year before warnings were in place about the deadly coronavirus epidemic.
Mr Siddle said yesterday: ‘My wife’s a Chinese citizen, although she’s got a permanent residency visa for the UK as a spouse.
‘But what the Foreign Office is saying is they are going to be doing an airlift, possibly tomorrow, but it’s only [for] British citizens.
‘Chinese authorities are not allowing any Chinese residents to leave.
‘I was put in the position to make a decision to either leave my wife here in China, or the three of us stay here [in Wuhan].
‘We have to basically have a nine-year-old child separated from their mother. Who knows how long that is going to be for?’
Mr Siddle told the Guardian there were no health warnings in place when they flew out on January 15. ‘My head is spinning,’ he said. ‘It’s just horrendous.
‘This ordeal just turned into our worst nightmare. How can they put a family in this position? Having to leave Sindy in China would be the worst thing that anyone could be put through. How am I going to tell Jasmine that her mum has to stay behind?’
Mr Siddle said he and his daughter will have to make their own way to Wuhan Tianhe International Airport, where the US and Japan have flown residents out of the city from. But he added that he is a three-hour drive away from the airport and that all the roads are on lockdown.
Another expat stranded in the region, Malcolm Lanyon, said he has chosen to stay in the region because he doesn’t want to leave his Chinese wife behind.
People wanting to escape from Wuhan will have to make their way across a city which has been largely abandoned – shops, schools and businesses are closed, there is no public transport, roads are blocked and flights out of the city have been cancelled (Picture taken Wednesday January 29)
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted the news this morning that people flying home from Wuhan would be properly quarantined for two weeks
Short of getting on emergency flights arranged by their embassies, foreign nationals staying or living in Wuhan have almost no way of getting out of the locked-down Wuhan (pictured January 29)
A pilot wearing a protective suit parks a cargo plane at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Tuesday
The evacuation flight is expected to be the first disease-related evacuation since the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2015 (Pictured, a patient is transferred to an ambulance on the runway at RAF Northolt five years ago)
WUHAN CORONAVIRUS: WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
What is this virus?
The virus has been identified as a new type of coronavirus. Coronaviruses are a large family of pathogens, most of which cause mild lung infections such as the common cold.
But coronaviruses can also be deadly. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is caused by a coronavirus and killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in the early 2000s.
Can the Wuhan coronavirus kill?
Yes – 170 people have so far died after testing positive for the virus.
What are the symptoms?
Some people who catch the Wuhan coronavirus may not have any symptoms at all, or only very mild ones like a sore throat or a headache.
Others may suffer from a fever, cough or trouble breathing.
And a small proportion of patients will go on to develop severe infection which can damage the lungs or cause pneumonia, a life-threatening condition which causes swelling and fluid build-up in the lungs.
How is it detected?
The virus’s genetic sequencing was released by scientists in China and countries around the world have used this to create lab tests, which must be carried out to confirm an infection.
Delays to these tests, to test results and to people getting to hospitals in China, mean the number of confirmed cases is expected to be just a fraction of the true scale of the outbreak.
How did it start and spread?
The first cases identified were among people connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.
Cases have since been identified around China and are known to have spread from person to person.
What are countries doing to prevent the spread?
Countries in Asia have stepped up airport surveillance. They include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines.
Australia and the US are also screening patients for a high temperature, and the UK announced it will screen passengers returning from Wuhan.
Is it similar to anything we’ve ever seen before?
Experts have compared it to the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The epidemic started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in mainland China, Hong Kong and elsewhere.
SCROLL DOWN TO SEE MAILONLINE’S FULL Q&A ON THE CORONAVIRUS
British Airways yesterday announced it would be stopping all flights to and from mainland China for the forseeable future. It runs daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai from London Heathrow.
The airline said in a statement: ‘We have suspended all flights to and from mainland China with immediate effect following advice from the Foreign Office against all but essential travel.
‘We apologise to customers for the inconvenience, but the safety of our customers and crew is always our priority.
‘Customers due to travel to or from China in the coming days can find more information on ba.com.’
Virgin Atlantic said it would continue to run flights between Heathrow and Shanghai as scheduled, but passengers will be able to rebook or get a refund for free.
The airline issued a statement which read: ‘We continue to monitor the situation regarding coronavirus and will always follow guidance as set out by relevant authorities.
‘The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against all but essential travel to mainland China, excluding Hong Kong.
‘For customers who have booked to travel to China, including Hong Kong, and would like to discuss their travel plans further, we would invite them to contact our customer care team via our SMS messaging system, on +44 (0)7481 339184.’
Airlines around the world have announced they are reducing services to China or stopping them altogether: action has been taken by Air France, Air KBZ (Myanmar), Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Lion Air, Myanmar Airways International, Myanmar National Airlines and Urals Airlines (Russia).
Kazakhstan has also announced it will stop all flights from February 3, and Hong Kong will halve the number of planes travelling to mainland China.
In the US, United Airlines said it would ‘trim’ its services to China because of a drop in demand.
US health officials have advised against all but essential travel to China as a whole, the same measure taken by the UK Government.
United said flights from the US to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong from February 1 were currently unaffected.
For US citizens stranded in the crisis-hit Wuhan, a flight chartered by the US Government yesterday retrieved 240 people and flew them back to America.
The plane first landed in Anchorage, Alaska to refuel.
It was then due to fly on to Ontario, California, but was diverted to a military base in Riverside.
San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman said: ‘The CDC just let us know the flight [would] be directed to March Air Force Base.’
He offered no explanation as to why, adding: ‘We were prepared for the worst.’
In the US there have been five cases of the Wuhan coronavirus confirmed already, and dozens more people have been tested in more than 20 states.
The Japanese government has also evacuated citizens from Wuhan and flown them to Tokyo.
One of the evacuees, Takayuki Kato, said the atmosphere had turned dark inside Wuhan after it became clear how quickly the virus was spreading.
Mr Kato said: ‘Everyone in the city began wearing masks. On the 23rd, when transport was shut down, I became very alarmed.
He said the evacuation went smoothly and added: ‘The flight was quiet. People were cool-headed’.
Five passengers who said they felt unwell were hospitalised on arriving in Japan but there has not yet been confirmation of whether they were infected with the virus.
The Japan flight arrived in Wuhan overnight, carrying emergency relief supplies including 15,000 masks, 50,000 pairs of gloves and 8,000 protective glasses, the country’s foreign ministry said.
Four medical officials were also on board to monitor returning passengers and administer health questionnaires.
All passengers will be tested for the new strain of coronavirus, which has killed 170 people and infected thousands.
Everything we know we know about the deadly coronavirus in China: But how worried should we be?
Someone who is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus can spread it with just a simple cough or a sneeze, scientists say.
FAMILIES TORN APART IN SCRAMBLE TO ESCAPE WUHAN
The scramble to evacuate coronavirus ground zero is tearing families apart, including one British man who says he is being forced to leave his Chinese wife behind to get his daughter to safety.
Up to 200 Britons are due to be evacuated from the Chinese city of Wuhan tomorrow and will be quarantined for two weeks in a UK military base.
British teacher Jeff Siddle is among them, along with his nine-year-old daughter Jasmine – but Beijing is barring his Chinese wife Sindy from boarding the rescue flight.
Mr Siddle and his family flew to Hubei province to spend time with his partner’s family and celebrate the Chinese New Year – before the warnings were in place about the deadly coronavirus epidemic.
Mr Siddle said today: ‘My wife’s a Chinese citizen, although she’s got a permanent residency visa for the UK as a spouse.
‘But what the Foreign Office is saying is they are going to be doing an airlift, possibly tomorrow, but it’s only [for] British citizens. Chinese authorities are not allowing any Chinese residents to leave.
Mr Siddle and his wife and daughter flew to Hubei before the outbreak to celebrate Lunar New Year
‘I was put in the position to make a decision to either leave my wife here in China, or the three of us stay here (in Wuhan). We have to basically have a nine-year-old child separated from their mother. Who knows how long that is going to be for?’
Other expats stranded in Wuhan and the wider Hubei province – including PE teacher Kharn Lambert and Malcolm Lanyon – have chosen to stay in the region.
Mr Lambert said he had given up his seat on the rescue flight because he does not want ‘to come home and put everybody’s health at risk’, while Mr Lanyon refused to leave his Chinese wife behind.
At least 170 people with the virus are now confirmed to have died and almost 8,000 have been infected in at least 18 countries and regions. But experts predict the true number of people with the disease could be 100,000, or even as high as 350,000 in Wuhan alone, as they warn it may kill as many as two in 100 cases. Here’s what we know so far:
What is the Wuhan coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It is currently named 2019-nCoV, and does not have a more detailed name because so little is known about it.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started seeing infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 4,500.
Just a week after that, there had been more than 800 confirmed cases and those same scientists estimated that some 4,000 – possibly 9,700 – were infected in Wuhan alone. By that point, 26 people had died.
By January 27, more than 2,800 people were confirmed to have been infected, 81 had died, and estimates of the total number of cases ranged from 100,000 to 350,000 in Wuhan alone.
By January 30, the number of deaths had risen to 170 and cases were in excess of 7,500.
Experts say the difficulty of containing the coronavirus is that so many patients have mild, cold-like symptoms and don’t realise they have the infection – but it can quickly turn deadly
Where does the virus come from?
Nobody knows for sure. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of the virus in Wuhan came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in the city, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
Bats are a prime suspect – researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a recent statement: ‘The Wuhan coronavirus’ natural host could be bats… but between bats and humans there may be an unknown intermediate.’
And another scientific journal article has suggested the virus first infected snakes, which may then have transmitted it to people at the market in Wuhan.
Peking University researchers analysed the genes of the coronavirus and said they most closely matched viruses which are known to affect snakes. They said: ‘Results derived from our evolutionary analysis suggest for the first time that snake is the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for the 2019-nCoV,’ in the Journal of Medical Virology.
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
There is now evidence that it can spread third hand – to someone from a person who caught it from another person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the virus it may take between two and 14 days for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients – at least 97 per cent, based on available data – will recover from these without any issues or medical help.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, yesterday said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has so far killed 170 people out of a total of at least 7,800 officially confirmed cases – a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
However, experts say the true number of patients is likely considerably higher and therefore the death rate considerably lower. Imperial College London researchers estimate that there were 4,000 (up to 9,700) cases in Wuhan city alone up to January 18 – officially there were only 444 there to date. If cases are in fact 100 times more common than the official figures, the virus may be far less dangerous than currently believed.
Experts say it is likely only the most seriously ill patients are seeking help and are therefore recorded – the vast majority will have only mild, cold-like symptoms. For those whose conditions do become more severe, there is a risk of developing pneumonia which can destroy the lungs and kill you.
Can the virus be cured?
The Wuhan coronavirus cannot currently be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak has not officially been confirmed as either an epidemic or a pandemic yet. This is likely because, despite the global concern, the number of people who have been confirmed to be infected is still relatively low.
A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
An epidemic is when a disease takes hold of a smaller community, such as a single country, region or continent.