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Tufts University School of Medicine

Should We Worry About the Coronavirus Emerging from China?

Medical workers in protective gear talk with a woman suspected of being ill with coronavirus at a community health station in Wuhan. Photo: Chinatopix via AP
Sunday, January 26, 2020 - 7:00pm

The emergence of a new virus that causes potentially fatal pneumonia led to China shutting down travel in and out of Wuhan, one of its largest cities, as the country prepared to celebrate Lunar New Year. The virus—known as 2019-nCoV—is related to others known to cause deadly respiratory disease.

The first cases of the viral illness were initially reported to be sickened people who had worked or shopped at a live-animal market in the city in the Hubei province in central China. However, new information has since been published in the scientific journal The Lancet that casts some doubt on this assumption—with three of the four earliest known cases having no connection to the seafood market.

Either way, the new virus quickly spread to other parts of China and has since been diagnosed in people in the United States and thirteen other countries in Asia, Australia, and Europe. As of January 26, 2019-nCoV had infected more than 2,700 people and killed at least eighty.

For many, the situation raises fears of another pandemic similar to that seen with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus. In 2002-2003, SARS spread to more than two dozen countries, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing 774. With reports of Chinese hospitals being overwhelmed by suspected cases of 2019-nCoV, China has announced plans to build a new 1,000-bed prefab hospital to treat infected patients within six days, similar to how it did for SARS.

Jonathan Epstein, V02, MPH02, the vice president for science and outreach at EcoHealth Alliance, a science-based nonprofit in New York, studies coronaviruses such as SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), along with other diseases transmitted between animals and people that have emerged in Asia and Africa.

Named for their physical structure—which, when looked at under an electron microscope, appears round with a crown of spikes—coronaviruses are found in many different mammals and birds. (Cats, for example, have a coronavirus that causes feline infectious peritonitis).

“Before SARS was discovered, there were only four known human coronaviruses, and they typically caused mild respiratory disease,” said Epstein. “That changed when SARS and MERS coronaviruses emerged and caused human fatalities.”

Epstein, who has adjunct faculty appointments at both Tufts School of Medicine and Cummings School, spoke with Tufts Now about what we know so far about this quickly evolving situation.

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