There’s a lot of confusing information – and sadly more than a bit of misinformation – surrounding the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Here’s what you need to know.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is a coronavirus anyway?
While the Wuhan outbreak has been widely reported in the media as a “coronavirus”, that’s actually a specification for a family of viruses that are rather common in most mammals.
Previous concerning coronavirus outbreaks included Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), so in that sense, the Wuhan variant isn’t a “new” type of disease, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Why is this a novel coronavirus?
The Wuhan coronavirus is also referred to as a novel coronavirus, because it represents a new viral strain that hasn’t previously been seen in human beings.
Why is it the Wuhan coronavirus?
This particular outbreak is often being referred to in the media as the Wuhan coronavirus, because the first reported outbreaks appear to originate in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is one of China’s most populated cities, with a population of around 11 million individuals.
How bad is the Wuhan coronavirus?
It’s potentially very serious, with 80 reported deaths attributed to the virus, at the time of writing, according to the Associated Press. However, it’s also very early days in our understanding of the virus, as it appears that in some individuals, it may present no worse than a simple cold or flu.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of the coronavirus appear much like those of the flu, with reports of those infected suffering from fever and respiratory symptoms including shortness of breath, coughs and sore throats, according to NSW Health.
This does make accurately identifying the virus more difficult, because many other viral symptoms could be present without it necessarily being the virus in question. If you have been in China recently and present with symptoms, please see a health care professional.
Who is at risk?
The primary local risk group identified at this time are Australians who have recently travelled or returned from the Wuhan area.
Australia has direct flights to and from Wuhan, which have now been cancelled, and the Australian government has set up additional biosecurity measures to assist travellers coming in from Wuhan if they present as unwell.
At least four Australians have so far been identified as testing positive to the Wuhan coronavirus – three in Sydney and one in Melbourne – with ongoing tests to determine if there are more confirmed cases.
This may take up to a fortnight, however, with the generally accepted standard for monitoring viral cases being 14 days, according to NSW Health. If after 14 days a suspected case of Wuhan coronavirus hasn’t presented itself, a subject is generally seen as being in the clear.
The data points aren’t huge so it’s tricky to present complete data, but it does appear the most serious complications from the Wuhan coronavirus have been in individuals with existing chronic conditions that the coronavirus may simply exacerbate.
How does the Wuhan coronavirus spread?
It’s not entirely known yet how the coronavirus spreads, because the virus itself is so new. It’s suspected that it may have been a virus that travelled from animals to humans from a food market in Wuhan, but some cases – including at least one in Melbourne – were from individuals who did not visit that particular market.
If it’s like many other viruses, it may spread through bodily fluids, particularly droplets coughed or sneezed out, or from unclean hands, but this has still to be confirmed at the time of writing.
How contagious is it?
Again, it’s rather too early to tell. There has been some work into determining the reproductive rate number of the Wuhan coronavirus, but these are early estimates only, not a concrete picture of quite how quickly it can spread. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that it’s actually less contagious than SARS was.
The World Health Organisation is providing daily updated figures for the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus; as of January 27 it is tracking 2798 confirmed cases worldwide, of which 2741 are in China and 37 further are confirmed across 11 different countries. Of those 37 cases, at this time, 36 are confirmed to be from individuals who have travelled to China.
I’ve been to China recently. What should I do?
If you’re fine and healthy, there’s relatively little worry if you’ve not been in or near Wuhan in your travels, especially if it was some time ago. The current WHO analysis suggests that the incubation period appears to be between 2-10 days.
If you’re unwell, and especially if your travels did include Wuhan – or you’ve been in close contact with family members who are unwell and have been in that area – it’s a good idea to book an appointment with your doctor. Make it clear that you’re unwell and you’ve been to Wuhan or have contact with people who have been in that area, according to NSW Health.
Your doctor may direct you to visit your local hospital’s emergency department. If so, it’s also a good idea to contact them before heading in so that they can prepare, because while there’s still a complete picture of transmission vectors emerging, calling ahead can assist them in taking standard precautions.
Should I cancel my travel to China?
It very much depends on the reasons for your travel and where you’re planning to go.
Rather obviously the city of Wuhan is on effective lockdown right now, so travel there is a no-go. The Australian government’s SmartTraveller website has issued an advisory note suggesting it’s a poor choice. With most travel routes in and out of Wuhan locked down right now, you’d almost certainly never make it to the area anyway.
The outbreak has also seen a number of popular tourist sites, including parts of the Great Wall of China, Beijing’s Forbidden City, Disneyland Shanghai and Disneyland Hong Kong shut.
You may need to carefully check the details of your travel insurance if you do decide to cancel travel to China, as some policies may not provide coverage for viral outbreaks once they’re a known risk factor.
Generally your travel expenses aren’t likely to be covered, but your medical expenses could be if you do contract the virus. It’s certainly a wise idea to check your coverage and its limitations before you do travel.