China’s new coronavirus is spreading fast. More than 43,000 people are known to be infected and at least 1,000 deaths have been recorded.
The bulk of cases and fatalities have been confined to China but the virus is spreading internationally. Four more patients in England have tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to eight.
The new cases are thought to be linked to a British man who caught the virus at a conference in Singapore and stopped at a ski resort in France before returning to the UK.
Experts have been warning for years that the world is long overdue a major disease outbreak, but there is much individuals can do to protect themselves and avoid becoming infected.
This practical guide is designed to keep you safe and will be updated daily. It is underpinned with advice from leading experts from the NHS and beyond.
What is a coronavirus?
Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause disease in animals. Seven, including the new virus, have made the jump to humans but most just cause common cold-like symptoms.
Two coronaviruses – Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) – are much more severe, having killed more than 1,500 people between them since 2002.
The new virus, known as 2019-nCoV, is also more dangerous than the common cold. So far, around 15 to 20 per cent of hospital cases have been classed as “severe” and the current death rate stands at about two per cent.
This is much lower than Mers (30 per cent) or Sars (10 per cent) but still a significant threat.
What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?
According to the NHS and the WHO, symptoms of the coronavirus usually include:
- A dry cough and/or sore throat
- A high temperature
- Feeling tired
- Difficulty breathing (in more severe cases)
These symptoms are similar to other respiratory diseases, including flu and the common cold. So if you have symptoms consider the following:
- Have you travelled in the last two weeks to a high risk area such as China, Singapore, Hong Kong or Thailand?
- Have you been in contact with someone who has?
How quickly do symptoms emerge?
Symptoms are thought to appear between two and 10 days after contracting the virus but may be up to 24 days.
There is also some evidence, as yet unconfirmed, that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic people – that is people who carry the virus but are not yet very sick.
If this is correct it may make the virus considerably more difficult to control.
When should I seek medical help?
If you have travelled to China (or another significantly affected area) in the last two weeks, or have been in “close contact” with someone who has and feel unwell, call NHS 111 for advice now.
Public Health England defines close contact as being within two meters of someone for 15 minutes or more or sharing a room for a prolonged period.
Do NOT go straight to a doctor’s surgery or hospital as, if you have the virus, you risk spreading it to others.
The NHS is asking anyone returning from Wuhan or Hubei Province in China to “self-quarantine” themselves for two weeks, that is stay away from work and other busy places and take care interacting with others.
How is the new coronavirus spread and how can I protect myself?
Hand hygiene is the first and most important line of defence.
Like cold and flu bugs, the new virus is spread via droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. The droplets land on surfaces and are picked up on the hands of others and spread further. People catch the virus when they touch their infected hands to their mouth, nose or eyes.
It follows that the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to keep your hands clean by washing them frequently with soap and water or a hand sanitising gel.
Also try to avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands – something we all do unconsciously on average about 15 times an hour.
Other tips include:
- Carry a hand sanitiser with you to make frequent cleaning of hands easy
- Always wash your hands before you eat
- Be especially careful in busy airports and other public transport systems about touching things and then touching your face
- Carry disposable tissues with you, cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and dispose of the tissue carefully (catch it, bin it, kill it)
- Do not share snacks from packets or bowls that others are dipping their fingers into
- Avoid shaking hands or cheek kissing if you suspect viruses are circulating
- Regularly clean, not just your hands, but commonly used surfaces and devices you touch or handle
Is it just droplets from the nose and mouth that spread the new virus?
Probably not, but they are by far the most common risk.
The NHS is advising doctors that the virus is also likely to be contained in other bodily secretions including in blood, faeces and urine.
Here again, hand and surface hygiene is the key.
How can I protect my family, especially children?
Children are a major vector for the spread of droplet-based viruses because they interact physically so much with each other and are not the best at keeping themselves clean.
However, you can greatly lower the risk that children pose of spreading or catching viruses by:
Explaining to them how germs spread and the importance of good hand and face hygiene
Keeping household surfaces clean, especially kitchens, bathrooms and door handles
Using clean cloths to wipe surfaces, so you don’t transfer germs from one surface to another
Giving everyone their own towel and making sure they know not to share toothbrushes etc
Keep your home dry and airy (bugs thrive in musty environments)
What about face masks, do they work?
Paper face masks are not generally recommended by the NHS for ordinary citizens – with good reason.
They are ill-fitting and what protection they might initially provide soon expires. Worse, they quickly become moist inside providing the perfect environment for germs to thrive in. They also become a hazard for others if carelessly discarded.
However, an exception to this would be if you were displaying symptoms such as coughing or sneezing – then a mask may help prevent you spreading the virus to others in busy locations.
In hospitals, healthcare workers treating patients with the virus will wear masks but these are specialist devices and there are strict protocols they must follow to ensure they remain safe and effective.
Can the new coronavirus be treated?
There is no simple cure for the new coronaviruses – just as there is no cure for the common cold.
In more severe cases, the virus causes pneumonia, an infection that inflames the lungs and causes breathing difficulty. This is where the main danger lies.
Viral pneumonia cannot be treated with antibiotics and, for the moment at least, there are no antivirals specific to this particular virus.
Instead doctors focus on supporting patients’ lung function as best they can. They may be given oxygen or placed on a breathing machine (ventilator) in the most severe cases.
Other symptoms such as fever and discomfort will be treated using drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen. Secondary infections may be treated with antibiotics.
Are some groups of people more at risk than others?
Data from China suggests that people of all ages are at risk of contracting the virus .
However, as with most respiratory illnesses, it is likely to be the young and old who are most at risk once infected. People with a reduced chance of surviving pneumonia include:
Of the first 425 confirmed deaths across mainland China, 80 per cent of victims were over the age of 60, and 75 per cent had some form of underlying disease. Two-thirds of the confirmed deaths were male.
Is there a vaccine for the new coronavirus?
There is currently no vaccine but scientists around the world are racing to produce one, thanks to China’s prompt sharing of the virus’s genetic code.
However, any potential vaccine will not be available for up to a year and would most likely be given to health workers most at risk of contracting the virus first.
For now, it is a case of containment and increasing hospital capacity to treat patients. China has thrown up several new 1,000-bed hospitals in the last month alone.
Capacity to treat patients who require both ventilation and isolation will also be a major challenge for the NHS if the virus takes hold in the UK – but that has not happened yet.
What advice has the UK government issued?
The UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk to the public from low to moderate. But the risk to individuals remains low.
In addition to the advice on symptoms above, the British government is advising against “all but essential” travel to China and urging those already there to leave if they can.
If you are a British national in China and require assistance, please contact:
- 24/7 number: +86 (0) 10 8529 6600
- The FCO: (+44) (0)207 008 1500
What is happening at UK airports?
Public Health England has announced “enhanced monitoring of direct flights” from China and has a small rota of doctors on hand at Heathrow to provide information and deal with possible cases.
In other major hub airports around the world, the authorities have gone further and are checking passengers temperatures on arrival and distributing hand sanitisers to combat the spread of the virus.
Good quality research suggests that hand cleansing at Heathrow and nine other global air hubs could slash the spread of the virus spread by up to 40%.
Where is the best place to sit on a plane?
The best place to sit is at a window seat in the middle of the cabin, research suggests. This is is because it reduces your risk of being infected by droplets shed by people walking up and down the the aisles.
What is the difference between a coronavirus and a flu virus?
Coronaviruses and flu viruses might cause similar symptoms but genetically they are very different.
“Flu viruses incubate very rapidly – you tend to get symptoms two to three days after being infected, but coronaviruses take much longer,” said Professor Neil Ferguson, a disease outbreak scientist at Imperial College London.
“[With the] flu virus you become immune but there are lots of different viruses circulating. Coronaviruses don’t evolve in the same way as flu with lots of different strains, but equally our body doesn’t generate very good immunity,” he added.
What risks are presented if the coronavirus mutates?
Chinese officials have warned that the virus is already starting to mutate, which means there’s a chance that the disease could start to infect many more people.
“The worry is that if you have a new virus that is exploring a human host it’s possible that they might mutate and spread more easily in humans,” Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told The Telegraph.
The genetic sequence of the virus shows a slow mutation rate, added Prof Ferguson.
“Could it mutate to become more lethal and transmissible? That’s speculation,” he said.