What is a coronavirus? What you should know about the new illness infecting hundreds

TORONTO — On New Year’s Eve, the World Health Organization received an unusual message.

Cases of a mysterious illness of unknown origins with pneumonia-like symptoms were reported in Wuhan, a densely-populated city in central China with more than 11 million people.

Less than three weeks later, the newly identified coronavirus has infected more than 200 people in China, killed at least three patients and prompted airports from Bangkok to New York City to begin screening passengers.

No cases have been reported in Canada, and the country’s chief public health officer said there is no reason for panic as the risk to Canadians remains low.

With new information emerging each day about the illness, here’s what we know so far.

WHAT IS A CORONAVIRUS?

The new illness is part of a larger family of viruses called coronaviruses. First identified in humans in the mid-1960s, coronaviruses are zoonotic, which means they can be transmitted between animals and people.

Coronaviruses can be minor as minor as the common cold or life-threatening, as was the case with SARS.

The term gets its name from the Latin word “corona,” meaning halo or crown, which is what the virus looks like under an electron microscope.

Symptoms of coronavirus range from mild symptoms, such as coughing and sneezing, to more serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, body aches and chills.

HOW IS THIS ONE DIFFERENT?

Scientists in China identified the new coronavirus on Jan. 7, eight days after it was first reported in connection with a seafood market in Wuhan. They were also able to identify the virus’s genetic sequence and shared it with the international community.

Primary symptoms include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.

Despite being sequenced, the source of the new coronavirus has not been found, and new information continues to emerge about its severity and spread.

Doubts have been raised about whether or not China is being forthcoming about numbers. A report by Imperial College London estimates that 1,723 people could have been infected by Jan. 12. – nearly nine times higher than China’s current figure.

HOW IS IT SPREAD?

Initially, the virus was connected with a handful of people in Wuhan, many of whom worked at the same seafood market. Scientists said they believed the illness was related to contact with animals and was not spread from human-to-human contact.

But that changed Monday when the head of a Chinese government expert team confirmed cases passed from one person to another. Healthcare workers in China have also tested positive for the virus, according to China Daily.

How easily the virus can be spread from one person to the next remains unclear.

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