Bats likely source of novel coronavirus: China scientists

Death toll rises to 9 in China; first case detected in US; WHO to hold emergency meet

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Wednesday 22 January 2020

The source of the current outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) may be a bat, according to a paper published in China Science Bulletin on January 21, 2020.

“Bats being the native host of the Wuhan CoV would be the logical and convenient reasoning, though it remains likely there was intermediate host(s) in the transmission cascade from bats to humans. Based on the unique phylogenetic position of the Wuhan CoVs, it is likely that they share with the SARS/SARS-like coronaviruses, a common ancestor that resembles the bat coronavirus HKU9-1,”  Chinese scientists said.

Nine people have died due to the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) infection, the Chinese Health Commission said in a fresh statement on January 22, 2020. The number of infection cases have risen to 440 and the disease has spread across 14 provinces of the country, the statement added. 

The first case of the virus has surfaced in the United States (US), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed on January 22.

“The patient from Washington with confirmed 2019-nCoV infection, returned to the US from Wuhan on January 15. The patient sought care at a medical facility in the state of Washington, where the patient was treated for the illness,” a CDC statement said.

“Based on the patient’s travel history and symptoms, healthcare professionals suspected this new coronavirus. A clinical specimen was collected and sent to CDC overnight, where laboratory testing yesterday confirmed the diagnosis,” it added.

The CDC has also enhanced the advisory level for US citizens travelling to China from ‘watch level 1’ to ‘alert level 2’ — which prescribes practising enhanced precautions.

Person-to-person spread is occurring, although it’s unclear how easily the virus spreads between people, it said. The human-to-human transmission of the virus was confirmed on January 20, 2020. 

One case each is being monitored in Australia and the Philippines for the virus after they showed initial symptoms. Both of them had visited the Chinese city of Wuhan. Thailand, Japan, South Korea have already confirmed one case each.  

The actual number of cases in China may be more than what is being publicly disclosed currently. Experts at the CDC did not rule it out.

“Of course, we’re generally concerned that there might be more cases, but we need to wait until our colleagues in China complete their investigation,” CDC’s Nancy Messonnier said. 

The number of cases in China may be around 1,300, Gabriel Leung, dean, medicine faculty, Hong Kong University, said in a press statement. There are also reports that many patients with similar symptoms are not being screened for coronavirus infection. 

Can the outbreak become a pandemic?

“As far as we know, all infections are occurring in China. But then, some are traveling and getting diagnosed elsewhere. If those cases start leading to new cases in those locations, then we would need to start considering this as an epidemic or pandemic. My guess is it’s probably going to happen,” Nathan Grubaugh, assistant professor in the Yale School of Public Health’s department of epidemiology told Down To Earth in an emailed reply. 

The Chinese government has said the cases are expected to go up this week. “The number of cases of the new virus is expected to continue rising during the Spring Festival holiday, which starts on January 24, due to the large number of people traveling nationwide, which will make the disease spread more easily,” Zhong Nanshan, head of the team of experts advising the Chinese government on coronavirus, told media.

At the moment, scientists are also in the dark about how the new virus would behave.

“We generally know that the incubation period is around 2 to 14 days, and there’s nothing that we’ve seen with this outbreak that is not consistent with that. But we really don’t have the level of detail that would allow us to be really completely confident that this virus is behaving the way that we expect,” Messonnier said, responding to a query about whether the CDC has a timeline about the outbreak. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) will meet on January 22 to decide whether the coronavirus outbreak should be declared a public health emergency of international importance.

It also released a situational update till January 20 late on the night of January 21. However, a significant number of cases are not reflected in the update. 

“The WHO is working with our networks of researchers and other experts to coordinate global work on surveillance, epidemiology, modelling, diagnostics, clinical care and treatment, and other ways to identify, manage the disease and limit onward transmission. WHO has issued interim guidance for countries, updated to take into account the current situation,” the update said.

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