Indonesian health officials conduct an exercise drill in transporting a patient requiring isolation at the Belawan port in Medan on February 3, 2020.
Indonesian health officials conduct an exercise drill in transporting a patient requiring isolation at the Belawan port in Medan on February 3, 2020.
Photo: IVAN DAMANIK/AFP via Getty Images

China passed a bleak milestone over the weekend, as more people in mainland China have now died of the newly discovered coronavirus than did during the SARS outbreak, which also began in China almost two decades ago. Cases in other countries are also increasing each day.

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Both SARS and 2019-nCoV, commonly called the Wuhan virus, are spiky ball-shaped germs known as coronaviruses. There are several other coronaviruses that routinely infect and sicken people. But like with SARS, 2019-nCoV is thought to have only recently jumped from animals to people, with deadly results.

As of February 3, at least 17,000 cases of 2019-nCoV have been reported within mainland China, along with another 22,000 suspected cases. There have also been 361 deaths reported—just over the 349 deaths reported in mainland China during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.

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Ultimately, the SARS outbreak infected over 8,000 people and killed over 750 worldwide before it was contained, amounting to a 10 percent fatality rate. Right now at least, the fatality rate for 2019-nCoV is hovering around 2 percent. The official tally likely represents the most serious illnesses, as people who don’t fall as ill may not realize they have the new virus, so it’s possible the true fatality rate is lower. But even if the virus remains less deadly, it’s already spreading far wider than SARS ever did.

The World Health Organization reports that, as of February 3, there have been over 150 cases outside of China in more than 20 countries. On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the U.S. has seen 11 documented cases. So far, these cases outside of China have mostly involved people traveling back from affected areas of China, but there have been isolated incidents of local human transmission as well. On Sunday, the Philippines reported that a 44-year-old resident died from the virus, making him the first death outside of China.

Scientists are continuing to research and track down the origins of the virus. There’s some evidence to suggest the virus may have been sickening people as early as late November, before the initial wave of cases linked to a food market in Wuhan. But it’s unclear how and if these early cases are connected to one another. Other research continues to strengthen the theory that the virus is a very close cousin of SARS and emerged from bats. There’s also been some encouraging evidence that already-available antiviral drugs could be used to treat serious cases, and at least a dozen different vaccine candidate programs have gotten underway.

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Despite these minor victories, the possibility that this outbreak could become a widespread epidemic or even pandemic still looms. Last week, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency in order to help prevent that from happening.

For now, though, people living outside China have more to fear from the seasonal flu than the Wuhan coronavirus.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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