The History of The Coronavirus 2019-nCov – Coronaviruses belong to a family known as Coronaviridae, and under an electron microscope they look like spiked rings. They’re named for these spikes, which form a halo or crown around their viral envelope.
Coronaviruses contain a strand of RNA within the envelope and, as a virus, can’t reproduce without getting inside living cells and hijacking their machinery. The spikes on the viral envelope help coronaviruses bind to cells, which gives them a way in, like blasting the door open with C4.
Once inside, they turn the cell into a virus factory, using its molecular conveyor belt to produce more viruses, which are then shipped out of the cell. The virus progeny infect other cells and the cycle starts anew.
Typically, these types of viruses are found in animals ranging from livestock and household pets to wildlife such as bats. When they make the jump to humans, they can cause fever, respiratory illness and inflammation in the lungs.
In immunocompromised individuals, such as the elderly or those with HIV-AIDS, such viruses can cause severe respiratory illness, resulting in pneumonia and even death.
Extremely pathogenic coronaviruses were behind SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbreaks in the last two decades. These viruses were easily transmitted from human to human.
SARS, which showed up in the early 2000s, infected more than 8,000 people and resulted in nearly 800 deaths. MERS, which appeared in the early 2010s, infected almost 2,500 people and led to more than 850 deaths.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus appears to have originated in Wuhan, a Chinese city about 650 miles south of Beijing that has a population of more than 11 million people. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which sells fish, as well as a panoply of meat from other animals, including bats and snakes was implicated in the spread in early January.
Prestigious medical journal The Lancet published an extensive summary of the clinical features of patients infected with the disease stretching back to Dec. 1, 2019. The very first patient identified had not been exposed to the market, suggesting the virus may have originated elsewhere and been transported to the market, where it was able to thrive.
Chinese authorities shut down the seafood market on Jan. 1.
Markets have been implicated in the origin and spread of viral diseases in past epidemics, including SARS and MERS. A large majority of the people so far confirmed to have come down with the new coronavirus had been to the Huanan Seafood marketplace in recent weeks.
The market seems like an integral piece of the puzzle, but researchers continue to test and research the original cause.
An early report, published in the Journal of Medical Virology on Jan. 22, suggested snakes were the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for 2019-nCoV, but the work was soundly refuted by two further studies just a day later, on Jan. 23.
“We haven’t seen evidence ample enough to suggest a snake reservoir for Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV),” said Peter Daszak, president of nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, which researches the links between human and animal health.
“This work is really interesting, but when we compare the genetic sequence of this new virus with all other known coronaviruses, all of its closest relatives have origins in mammals, specifically bats. Therefore, without further details on testing of animals in the markets, it looks like we are no closer to knowing this virus’ natural reservoir.”
Another group of Chinese scientists uploaded a paper to preprint website biorXiV, having studied the viral genetic code and compared it to the previous SARS coronavirus and other bat coronaviruses.
They discovered the genetic similarities run deep: The virus shares 80% of its genes with the previous SARS virus and 96% of its genes with bat coronaviruses. Importantly, the study also demonstrated the virus can get into and hijack cells the same way SARS did.
All good science builds off previous discoveries — and there is still a lot to learn about the basic biology of 2019-nCoV before we have a good grasp of exactly which animal vector is responsible for transmission — but early indications are the virus is similar to those seen in bats.
A report by the New York Times on Jan. 28 suggested the Chinese horseshoe bat could be the main culprit.
How many confirmed cases have been reported?
Authorities have confirmed over 28,000 cases as of Feb. 5.
In the US, 12 cases have been confirmed: six in California, two in Illinois and one each in Washington state, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Arizona. Canada has four confirmed cases. By Feb. 5, Australia’s confirmed cases jumped to 13. Two cases have been confirmed in the UK.
A cruise ship, stationed off the Japanese port of Yokohama, has been put into quarantine after a passenger traveling onboard was found to be infected with 2019-nCoV. Another 10 cases have been confirmed, with three Japanese, three Chinese, two Australians, one American and one Filipino testing positive.
Over 24,000 people are being tracked as of Feb. 3. According to CGTN, a Chinese media service, more than 1,150 people have recovered.
Here’s the breakdown as it stands:
- China: 28,088 confirmed cases (Hong Kong: 24; Macau: 10)
- Thailand: 25 confirmed cases
- Japan: 45 confirmed cases
- Singapore: 28 confirmed cases
- South Korea: 23 confirmed cases
- Australia: 15 confirmed cases
- US: 12 confirmed cases
- Germany: 12 confirmed cases
- Taiwan: 16 confirmed cases
- Malaysia: 12 confirmed cases
- Vietnam: 10 confirmed cases
- France: 6 confirmed cases
- United Arab Emirates: 5 cases
- Canada: 5 confirmed cases
- India: 3 confirmed cases
- Philippines: 3 confirmed cases
- UK: 2 confirmed cases
- Italy: 2 confirmed cases
- Russia: 2 confirmed cases
- Spain: 1 confirmed case
- Cambodia: 1 confirmed case
- Nepal: 1 confirmed case
- Sri Lanka: 1 confirmed case
- Tibet: 1 confirmed case
- Finland: 1 confirmed case
- Sweden: 1 confirmed case
- Belgium: 1 confirmed case
You can track the spread of the virus with this handy online tool, which is collating data from a number of sources including the CDC, the WHO and Chinese health professionals. (Note: There may be differences in our reports and the tracking tool.)
How many deaths have been reported?
The death toll passed a grim milestone on Jan. 27, with the confirmation that 100 people had been killed by the novel virus. As of Feb. 5, the death toll stands at 565.
One death has been recorded outside China. A man who traveled to Wuhan and returned to the Philippines in January passed away on Feb. 1. A second death outside mainland China was reported Tuesday, after a 39-year-old man died in Hong Kong.