The novel coronavirus outbreak is threatening to turn into a global pandemic. Here’s everything we know about COVID-19

The fear of a global pandemic is rising, with the novel coronavirus threatening to disrupt everything from the global economy to the Tokyo Olympics. Here’s everything you need to know about the virus:

What are the symptoms?

It starts with a fever. Most experience fatigue, a dry cough. Some have muscle pain and have trouble breathing.

What’s the virus’s official name?

On Feb 11, the World Health Organization renamed the disease as coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19. It made sure not to reference Wuhan, where the virus originated in order to avoid further stigmatization on the people who come from that central Chinese city.

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How does the illness spread?

Though the first infections were linked to a live animal market in Wuhan, the virus now spreads person-to-person, in particular through coughing and sneezing.

Someone who is sick with the virus can spread it to others, which is why many countries are isolating patients in either hospitals or homes until they have recovered.

Is there an antidote?

Canada’s chief public health officer says it will likely take at least a year before a vaccine is developed.

When did it begin?

The first cases were reported in December from people who visited a seafood market, since closed, in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. Experts suspect that the virus was first transmitted from wild animals, and that it could mutate. Mutations could make it deadlier and/or more contagious.

What countries have been affected?

Nearly 40 countries have experienced cases of the virus. The overwhelming majority of cases have occurred in China, while South Korea has the second-most amount of cases with nearly 1,000 as of Feb. 25, followed by Japan.

However, Canadian officials fear that the true number of cases in Iran may be upwards of 18,000, according to a preliminary analysis by Canadian researchers, nearly 200 times larger than what the country has reported which would have grave global consequences.

How many cases in Canada?

As of Feb. 25, Canada had 11 reported cases — seven in British Columbia and four in Ontario.

Who has died?

Though an examination by the Chinese government earlier in February found that the illness largely killed older men — many with underlying health problems — the illness has since killed young, otherwise healthy people of any gender, complicating questions about who is most at risk.

As of Tuesday, more than 2,700 people had died from the coronavirus.

Is recovery likely?

While it largely depends on the condition of the patient — some pre-existing health conditions will likely impact the speed or likelihood of recovery — far more people have recovered from the illness than those who have died from it.

As of Tuesday, more than 27,900 people had recovered. In total, there are more than 80,400 cases worldwide, most of which have yet to be resolved.

Should I start wearing a mask?

Canadian health officials say that wearing surgical masks during everyday life has little use in protecting against the coronavirus, despite being effective in hospital settings.

Early data on the virus suggests that masks won’t be especially effective, and some say that repeatedly touching and adjusting the masks with unwashed hands could do more harm than good.

Does washing my hands help?

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Yes! Washing your hands is still the leading weapon to kill the spread of viruses. Wash frequently, and thoroughly, with soap and water or use an alcohol-hand sanitizer.

What is Canada doing?

The risk to Canadians remains low, officials say.

Travellers are asked additional health-screening questions at airports to help identify those who may have visited Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak. Travellers are asked at an electronic kiosk or directly by a border services officer.

Passengers arriving in Canada who visited Wuhan will be subjected to “closer screening,” and anyone found to have flu-like symptoms will undergo further checks by the health agency.

Public Health Ontario’s laboratory, in the MaRS Discovery Centre building, has been tasked with testing for potential cases. Though only four have been identified in Ontario, the lab had tested 500 potential cases as of Sunday.

What has Canada learned from the SARS outbreak?

SARS caused a crisis in Toronto back in the early 2000s due to the sheer number of people infected with the disease (in Canada, there were 438 probable or suspected cases, resulting in 44 deaths, mostly in the GTA).

Dr. Allison McGeer, director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital, noted that the “primary problem with the SARS virus was that it was mostly transmitted when people were very ill in hospitals,” and so, if people weren’t diagnosed as having SARS, then human-to-human transmission was more common.

Since then, she noted that a lot of work has been done to prevent transmission in hospitals.

“Has that made a difference to how prepared we are for emerging infectious disease and new outbreaks? Yes, absolutely,” McGeer said.

However, she added that it is “a general truth in Canada that we have underfunded and under-resourced public health departments. So are we well prepared to deal with public health crises? No. How will we manage it? Bit hard to tell.”

Is there any silver lining?

In Canada, potentially. The virus has led to a surge in purchases of hand sanitizer and face masks. And while the risk of contracting the virus in Canada is very low, the new affinity towards cleanliness is useful for combating other illnesses, like the seasonal flu.

What events around the world have been affected?

Many events have been postponed or cancelled around the world including:

  • China’s annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, which symbolically approves the nation’s political agenda for the year, which was supposed to be on March 5 has been postponed.
  • The Mobile World Congress due to take place at the end of this month has been cancelled. The event usually attracts more than 100,000 people, with an estimated 6,000 of them travelling from China.
  • Amateur runners have been banned from the Tokyo Marathon on March 1.
  • Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August could be affected. A senior member of the International Olympic Committee said that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, organizers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.

Outside of China, where was the worst outbreak?

Amid accusations of lax protocols on board a cruise ship that was in an extraordinary two-week quarantine, almost 550 cases were confirmed among more than 3,700 passengers on the Diamond Princess in Japan. The ship seemed to become an incubator for a new virus instead of an isolation facility meant to prevent the worsening of an outbreak.

What’s a global health emergency?

The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global emergency.

The UN health agency defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a co-ordinated international response.

A declaration of a global emergency typically brings greater financial and other resources, but may also prompt nervous governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. The announcement also imposes more disease-reporting requirements on countries.

Correction — Feb 25, 2020: This article has been corrected from a previous version that stated the novel coronavirus “may be mutating.” In fact, a joint team of Chinese and World Health Organization experts have found that the coronavirus has mutated very little. There is no evidence to suggest that there is a new form of the virus.

Jacob Lorinc

Jacob Lorinc is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jacoblorinc

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