The Brighton coronavirus ‘super-spreader’ is a 53-year-old scout leader and family man who insists he has beaten the deadly virus in five days, MailOnline can exclusively reveal today.
Sales executive Steve Walsh is in an isolation unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London after picking up the disease from one of the 100 other delegates at a Singapore gas conference last month.
Mr Walsh, who is assistant cub scout leader at the 3rd Hove St Leonards Scout Group where the children know him as Shere Khan, then accidentally infected at least 11 other Britons on his 6,736-mile journey home to Hove via a ski holiday with friends in the Alps.
Today the father-of-two claimed he is feeling well again and said in a statement from quarantine: ‘I would like to thank the NHS for their help and care – whilst I have fully recovered, my thoughts are with others who have contracted coronavirus’.
Mr Walsh decided to reveal his identity today after inadvertently putting Brighton at the centre of Britain’s coronavirus crisis after four people on his ski holiday who live in the seaside resort also tested positive yesterday.
In the past 24 hours two city health centres have been closed, a care home is on lockdown and children at one primary school have been told they can stay at home after two GPs became confirmed cases and a teacher was quarantined at home.
The spread of the disease has sparked panic in the south coast city, where residents have accused public health officials of ‘losing control’ by ‘intentionally hiding’ information about Mr Walsh including his identity and exact movements since he came home on January 28.
As the global death toll hit 1,016 and the British Government threatened to arrest people who try the flee quarantine, it also emerged today:
- World Health Organisation announces a name for the new coronavirus – Covid-19;
- Super-spreader revealed as Steve Walsh who tested positive for coronavirus up to 17 days after catching it from a delegate at a Singapore gas conference. He is recovering in St Thomas’ Hospital and his family is also in isolation;
- Two health centres and a care home in Brighton have all been closed amid fears they could be contaminated by two GPs with coronavirus. Schoolchildren allowed to stay at home after a teacher is in quarantine at home with parents in the city calling for all school to close;
- Public Health England and the Department of Health slammed for their response to the crisis and accused of keeping ‘secrets’ from people of Brighton as crisis ‘spirals out of control’;
- A total of 1,358 people in the UK have been tested for coronavirus, of which 1,350 were confirmed negative and eight positive, the Department of Health said today;
- Two male prisoners are being checked for suspected coronavirus at HMP Bullingdon in Oxfordshire;
This is the coronavirus super-spreader Steve Walsh, who inadvertently infected 11 people with the disease on a ski break in the Alps, and revealed he has beaten the virus today
Father-of-two sales executive Mr Walsh is in quarantine in a London hospital today after picking up the disease at a Singapore gas conference
Workers in protective suits inside of the County Oak Medical Centre in Brighton on Monday after a GP at the practice was diagnosed with the deadly virus
MailOnline has found at least nine sites in Brighton linked to the city’s super spreader or his infected doctor friend including two schools, two health centres and a care home as the area’s residents accused public health chiefs of starving them of information
What we know about ‘super-spreader’ Steve Walsh and how the coronavirus crisis has gripped Brighton
Jan 20-23: British businessman Steve Walsh unknowingly catches the virus at a conference attended by more than 100 internationals at the £1,000-a-night Grand Hyatt hotel in Singapore
Jan 24: The 53-year-old arrives in Contamines-Montjoie in the French Alps and stays at a chalet owned by a fellow Brit. French health ministry officials say he had contact with at least 11 Britons at the chalet. Less than 1,000 cases in China had been recorded at this point
Jan 27: Servomex, the gas analysis company Mr Walsh works for, advises all attendees of the conference to work from home. The advice came four days after one conference-goer was quarantined in Asia over fears of having the virus
Jan 28: Mr Walsh flies back from Geneva, Switzerland to London Gatwick on board easyJet flight EZS8481. He did not have any symptoms. Authorities say they contacted 183 passengers and six crew on the flight
February 1: Mr Walsh spends two hours at his local pub, The Grenadier, in Hove. Five staff are told to self-isolate for a fortnight. It is unclear where else he went after landing back in the UK. Almost 12,000 cases across the world have been recorded at this point
February 4-5: Mr Walsh contacts his GP, NHS 111 and Public Health England after learning he had been exposed to a confirmed coronavirus case at the conference in Singapore. He drives himself to the Royal Sussex County Hospital Brighton to be tested in isolation and then self-isolates once at home. Servomex give a list of all British attendees to PHE for screening
February 6: He tests positive for the virus at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and is then whisked off to Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London to be quarantined for two weeks. He becomes the third case in the UK. Almost 30,000 cases have been recorded across the world at this point
February 8: Five Britons – four adults and a child – staying at the same chalet as the ‘super-spreader’ in France test positive for the coronavirus. Environmental consultant Bob Saynor, 48, and his nine-year-old son were named locally as two of the Brits
February 9: British father living in Majorca tests positive: Ex-pat who also had contact with the Brighton businessman at chalet France has disease. His wife and two daughters test negative.
UK officials confirm a fourth person has caught coronavirus in England, and reveal they had come into contact with Mr Walsh in France. This is thought to be Dr Catriona Greenwood, who owns the chalet in France with her husband Mr Saynor.
February 10: Four more patients in the UK are confirmed to have the coronavirus: All had contact with businessman at the ski resort in France. It brings the total number of cases in the UK to eight
Dr Greenwood’s GP surgery – the County Oak Medical Centre – was closed for health reasons. Another case was confirmed to be a health worker, thought to be a male GP and friend of the Saynor family
February 11: Patcham Nursing Home in Brighton closed its doors to visitors as a ‘precaution’ amid fears either Dr Greenwood or the other GP with coronavirus visited one of its 24 elderly residents last week
Students at Bevendean Primary School are told they can stay at home after a teacher was asked to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who had spent time with a coronavirus patient, potentially the ‘super-spreader’ Steve Walsh. Parents of pupils said they were left ‘shaking with fear’
Another GP practice in Brighton – Deneway Surgery – is closed. It is also run by the County Oak Medical Centre. It is not clear if Dr Greenwood had been here, or the other male GP worked here
Mr Walsh lives with his wife Catherine and contracted the virus during a conference at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Singapore organised by Servomex, a British gas analytics company he works for, more than two weeks ago.
He then travelled to Les Contamines-Montjoie, near Megeve, for a ski break to stay with friends Bob and Catriona Saynor, who own the chalet where 11 people were exposed to the virus. They are both believed to have coronavirus and so has their nine-year-old son.
Mr Walsh then flew from Geneva to London on an easyJet plane with 100-plus passengers and crew before going to his local pub, The Grenadier in Hove.
He then called NHS 111 with concerns about coronavirus and was advised to go to Royal Sussex County Hospital Brighton, for testing, before being moved to a specialist unit in London.
Describing the chain of events that led to his diagnosis on February 6, Mr Walsh revealed he was allowed to drive himself home after being tested for coronavirus.
He said: ’As soon as I knew I had been exposed to a confirmed case of coronavirus I contacted my GP, NHS 111 and Public Health England.
‘I was advised to attend an isolated room at hospital, despite showing no symptoms, and subsequently self-isolated at home as instructed. When the diagnosis was confirmed I was sent to an isolation unit in hospital, where I remain, and, as a precaution, my family was also asked to isolate themselves.
‘I also thank friends, family and colleagues for their support during recent weeks and I ask the media to respect our privacy’.
Mr Walsh was the first Briton to fall ill on home soil – but the UK’s third case after two Chinese tourists tested positive while staying in a budget hotel in York.
Britain’s fourth case is believed to be Dr Catriona Saynor, who owns the chalet in Les Contamines-Montjoie where the super-spreader stayed, but flew back to the UK for her work as a locum GP before testing positive last week.
Four more friends from Brighton on the same ski holiday – including two more GPs – returned home before testing positive for coronavirus over the weekend.
And five more Britons who shared a ski chalet with Mr Walsh, including Dr Saynor’s husband Bob and their nine-year-old son, are in hospital in France. Another expat also infected with the virus fell ill after returning home to Majorca, taking the number of cases linked to Mr Walsh to 11.
A Servomex spokesman said: ‘We are very pleased that Steve Walsh has made a full recovery. We continue to provide support to him and his family. We are working with Public Health authorities to ensure the welfare of our staff and communities and wish anyone with the virus a quick and full recovery’.
The cub scout leader did not spend any time with his group in Hove since returning from Singapore.
A Scouting Association spokesman said: ‘We are aware that Steve Walsh from the Brighton area who volunteers with the Scout Movement is suffering from coronavirus. He contracted the virus while out of the UK. This volunteer has not been to any Scout meetings since his return to the UK.
‘We wish Steve well and hope he recovers soon’.
Six of the infected Britons who came into contact with him are being treated in France and Spain, but the other five, including the GPs, returned to the Brighton area.
Professor Keith Willett, NHS strategic incident director, praised Mr Walsh today.
He said: ‘This patient did the right thing when they had concerns about coronavirus by calling NHS 111 for advice. After a telephone assessment, they were advised to make their way to Royal Sussex County Hospital Brighton, for testing. Following a pre-arranged plan with the NHS they drove themselves to the hospital, were tested in isolation and away from public areas of the hospital and returned home in isolation in their own car.
‘Any travellers from China and the other specified countries who have a cough, fever, or shortness of breath advised to follow the example of this patient and call NHS 111 for advice.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs in the Commons this afternoon that ‘a capital facility’ was being launched immediately ‘to support any urgent works the NHS needs for the coronavirus response, such as the creation of further isolation areas and other necessary facilities.’
He added: ‘As I said last week, dealing with this disease is a marathon not a sprint. The situation will get worse before it gets better. We will be guided by the science. Be in no doubt, we will do everything that is effective to tackle this virus and keep people safe’.
The Grenadier pub in Hove, where the super spreader went for a drink after returning from Singapore with the virus. Staff who were on shift that night have been told to self-isolate
Patcham Nursing Home in the north of the city has closed its doors to visitors amid fears a GP with coronavirus visited one of its 24 elderly residents last week
Brighton GP surgery the County Oak Medical Centre has been closed for ‘urgent operational health and safety reasons’ after a member of staff tested positive for the killer coronavirus
The Britons infected with coronavirus – and the patients ill in the UK
Cases in the UK and where they are being cared for:
Newcastle: Two Chinese nationals who came to the UK with coronavirus and fell ill while on the tourist trail in York. They were the first two cases on British soil and confirmed on January 31.
London: The first British coronavirus victim has become known as a super-spreader. Steve Walsh picked up the virus in Singapore – but flew for a ski break in France afterwards where he appears to have infected at least 11 people.
Dr Catriona Saynor, who owns the chalet with her husband Bob, is feared to be the fourth patient in the UK diagnosed with Coronavirus. Her husband remained in France but she flew to Britain for medical exams and is in hospital.
Four more people in Brighton – including two medics – were diagnosed over the weekend and confirmed as cases. They were all ‘known contacts’ of the super-spreader and are thought to have stayed in the same French resort.
Total in UK hospitals: Eight patients. Six Britons and two Chinese nationals
British expats and holidaymakers outside the UK and where they are being cared for:
Majorca: A British father-of-two who stayed in the ski resort tested positive after returning to his home in Majorca. His wife and children are not ill.
France: Five people who were in the chalet with the super-spreader. These include the chalet’s owner, environmental consultant Bob Saynor, 48, and his nine-year-old son. They are all in a French hospital with three unnamed others. Dr Catriona Saynor is in Britain.
Japan: A British man on board a cruise ship docked at a port in Japan tested positive for coronavirus, Princess Cruises said. Alan Steele, from Wolverhampton, posted on Facebook that he had been diagnosed with the virus. Steele said he was not showing any symptoms but was being taken to hospital. He was on his honeymoon.
Public health officials are urgently tracing patients who might have been infected – but have been accused of keeping ‘secrets’ from the public.
Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia, said: ‘Patient confidentiality is important but we may now be at the point where the public’s need to know more information is greater.
‘It would be helpful to know if he got a taxi straight home or got a bus and stopped off at the supermarket. Letting the public know this timeline will reassure many that they are not at risk.’
Servomax today released details of Mr Walsh’s movements before he fell ill – but Public Health England has refused to reveal where he went in Brighton.
A care home is the latest health facility to be shut down in Brighton amid fears a GP with coronavirus visited one of its 24 elderly residents last week with the seaside resort’s residents gripped by fear.
Patcham Nursing Home in the north of the city has closed its doors to visitors as a ‘precaution’ after the nearby County Oak Medical Centre was sealed off and cleaned by a team in hazmat suits after a member of medical staff tested positive for the killer virus.
And this morning students at Bevendean Primary School have been told they can stay at home after it was revealed a teacher there is in ‘self-isolation’ over fears they have caught the coronavirus from the city’s super-spreader.
Britain is facing a major coronavirus outbreak and Brighton is at its centre because it is home to the scout leader super-spreader who infected at least 11 people before falling ill himself last week.
A relative of a Patcham resident tried to pop in to the care home yesterday but was told by bosses it was ‘off limits’ and told Brighton and Hove News: ‘They said the reasoning behind the closing was because the doctor, who was tested positive for coronavirus, visited’.
Yesterday it emerged the illness has struck down two GPs – feared to be Catriona Saynor and a doctor friend who was also in the Alps at the end of January.
The Coronavirus is spiralling out of in Brighton and health bosses are intentionally hiding information about the super-spreader, a leading city councillor has said.
Professor Samer Bagaeen, a leading figure on Brighton and Hove City Council’s Health board said Public Health England (PHE), the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Brighton and Hove City Council have lost control of the situation by keeping residents ill-informed.
He said: ‘I think they have not been straight with everyone from the start and have intentionally hid the implications of the infections.
‘We don’t know who in the city has been exposed and where.
‘We should have been informed since day one. You have people who are ‘self isolating’ but could still be going to the shops.
‘And the council has told us councillors that we must not speak to journalists. The problem is that nobody is stepping into a leadership role and everyone is passing the buck.’
Dr Catriona Saynor (pictured left) quit as a partner in Brighton to live permanently in the French chalet where the British super-spreader visited to ski. She works at County Oak Medical Centreas a locum, according to the medical centre’s website. Her husband Bob and their nine-year-old son are also said to have been confirmed with coronavirus
CARE HOME IN BRIGHTON SHUTS DOWN AND PRIMARY SCHOOL TELLS PUPILS NOT TO TURN UP OVER CORONAVIRUS FEARS
A care home is the latest health facility in Brighton to be shut down amid fears a GP infected with coronavirus visited one of its 24 elderly residents last week, while a primary school in the city has told pupils not to turn up over concerns a teacher may have the deadly disease.
Patcham Nursing Home in the north of the city has closed its doors to visitors as a ‘precaution’ after the nearby County Oak Medical Centre was sealed off and cleaned by a team in hazmat suits after a member of medical staff tested positive for the killer virus.
And this morning students at Bevendean Primary School were told they can stay at home if they want after it was revealed a teacher there is in ‘self-isolation’ over fears they caught the coronavirus from someone who came into contact with the city’s ‘super-spreader’.
A relative of a Patcham resident tried to pop in yesterday but was warned by bosses it was ‘off limits’ and told Brighton and Hove News: ‘They said the reasoning behind the closing was because the doctor, who was tested positive for coronavirus, visited.’
Parents of children at Bevendean said they were left ‘shaking with fear’ after getting an email this morning to warn of the potential coronavirus case.
A mother with a six-year old son at the school told The Argus: ‘I’m still shaking. I was going to take my child to school, but then I got the email at 7.10 this morning. I’m just glad I checked. The pupils have been given the choice whether to go in or not – it’s up to parents, and if they take the time off it goes down as an authorised absence.
‘I’m not sending my child to school. I’m not sending him for the rest of the week. I’m scared of this virus. It’s left the whole country scared. My son’s scared too. He doesn’t want to go to school.’
Tracking down the patients doctors has been made a priority because the virus is known to be particularly dangerous for those with pre-existing health conditions.
NHS sources stressed a maximum of 15 patients came into contact with them since their return from the French chalet.
The Brighton doctors are among 11 Britons thought to have caught the virus from Mr Walsh.
Whitehall sources suggested the cluster of cases meant hundreds of people would now have to be tested for the virus. The news comes as the death toll from the killer disease tops 1,000.
At least one of the infected doctors is thought to have practised at the County Oak Medical Centre on Carden Hill. It was shut down yesterday for a deep clean.
Speaking to the PA news agency on Tuesday outside County Oak Medical Centre where she is a patient, a 43-year-old mother-of-four from Brighton said: ‘I was here on the 3rd and the 5th and they will not tell me the risk even though I am immunosuppressed with lupus.’
She said she has called 111 several times but was told ‘the risk isn’t known’ and to stay in for 14 days if she feels at risk.
‘Nobody knows anything. It’s a farce. Everybody is worried about it. No-one can protect themselves and we can’t protect the public. I am going to ring 111 and [Public] Health England until I get some answers.’
The pharmacy at County Oak Medical Centre will reopen today, staff confirmed, but the surgery is expected to remain closed.
The World Health Organisation expressed its alarm about the situation last night. ‘The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,’ said its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He said it was worrying that the illness had been transmitted by people with no travel history to China, where the virus originated.
As the death toll in China passed 1,000 and the Department of Health declared a ‘serious and imminent threat’:
Until the Country Oak medical centre reopens, the surgery’s 7,600 patients have been told to call NHS 111 if they are unwell or 999 if they have a life-threatening emergency.
A GP who has worked at the practice, Catriona Saynor, who uses her maiden name Greenwood at work, owns the French chalet with her husband. However, there is no official confirmation that she is infected with the virus.
According to Brighton and Hove News she worked an ‘admin’ day at the surgery last week but did not meet any patients.
Public Health England is also trying to trace anyone who came into contact with the other Britons who were infected on the ski holiday.
The epidemic has struck down over 43,000 people since the first cases were reported in late January – 99 per cent of infections are in China
So far the coronavirus epidemic sweeping the world has killed more than 1,000, all but two of whom were in China
UK GOVERNMENT WILL ‘FORCIBLY QUARANTINE ANY PATIENTS WITH SUSPECTED CORONAVIRUS’
Suspected coronavirus patients will now be forcibly quarantined after a man staying at an isolation facility following his evacuation from Wuhan two weeks ago threatened to walk out.
The patient staying at Arrowe Park hospital on The Wirral told medics he was going to leave before completing 14 days of quarantine after his return from the Chinese city, MailOnline understands.
Government sources said those who returned to the UK on the evacuation flights on January 31 were given a ‘very clear choice’ and had to sign contracts saying they would remain in isolation for a fortnight.
It came as the Department of Health today declared the outbreak a ‘serious and imminent’ threat to the British public as it announced new powers to fight the spread. Anyone infected with the virus will now be kept in quarantine for their own safety and will be forced into isolation if they pose a threat to public health.
A source told MailOnline: ‘We found we didn’t have the necessary enforcement powers to make sure they didn’t leave.
The source said the phrase ‘serious and imminent threat’ in the regulation was needed to trigger the powers, and at the moment the risk to the public is still regarded as ‘moderate’. We’re saying we are having to take action to prevent it becoming a serious and imminent threat.’
The first Britons evacuated from Wuhan will have completed 14 days in quarantine on Saturday, MailOnline understands.
They have told a dozen people in Brighton to go into quarantine and they are sending them texts every morning asking them to reply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if they have symptoms.
Five staff at the Grenadier pub in Hove have been instructed to ‘self-isolate’ after the super-spreader spent two hours there on February 1.
One bar worker was told they needed to be within two metres of an infected person for longer than 20 minutes to have any risk of picking up the infection.
Speaking anonymously to MailOnline, he said: ’I am worried in case I could potentially infect someone. I have to stay in my room until the 15th – and am only allowed out to use the bathroom and kitchen. Public Health England are messaging me every morning and ask if I have symptoms. The text just states that if I’m feeling any symptoms – a cough or a fever or loss of breath – to text ‘yes or no’.’
The worker, who lives in a shared house, hasn’t seen his family since he was told to go into isolation – they are bringing him food while he can’t leave the house but have to leave it on the doorstep.
He said: ‘I got my parents to grab me some shopping and leave it outside the house and I left the money outside for them.
‘I’ve been told you need to be in a two metre radius for longer than 20 minutes to have a low risk chance of infection. So as long as I self-isolate from now, even if I do have it, I shouldn’t pass it on. I was tested yesterday I’m awaiting my results either today or tomorrow’.
He added: ‘It was my boss who called me but he is a very good chap, he treats me and the other staff well. It’s just such a shame this has happened at our wonderful pub. I haven’t been given the identity of the man – and I don’t know if I served him’.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director of PHE, said: ‘Two of these new cases are healthcare workers and as soon as they were identified, we advised them to self-isolate in order to keep patient contact to a minimum.
CORONAVIRUS COULD INFECT MORE THAN 60% OF THE WORLD UNLESS IT IS STOPPED NOW
Coronavirus could infect more than 60 per cent of the global population if containment methods fail, a top Hong Kong medical official has warned.
Professor Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine in the city, also said that even if the death rate reaches just one per cent, the potential spread means it could still kill thousands of people.
There are more than 43,000 cases reported in the world so far, with more than 1,000 deaths due to the virus.
Professor Leung told The Guardian during a visit to London that the priority now is to establish the size and shape of the ‘epidemic iceberg’.
Most experts believe that each infected person has gone on to transmit the virus to around 2.5 people, giving an ‘attack rate’ of 60 to 80 per cent.
The death rate, however, is thought to be much lower. Professor Leung expects it to be around one per cent once milder cases, that have not been diagnosed, are taken into account.
‘We are now working urgently to identify all patients and other healthcare workers who may have come into close contact, and at this stage we believe this to be a relatively small number.’
The fact that this super-spreader passed the disease to 11 Britons –five of whom returned to the UK and may have infected others themselves – has concerned scientists. ‘
Last week Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said patients tended to spread the disease to only two or three people.
The French chalet has been pinpointed as the centre of this outbreak. It is owned by Miss Greenwood, one of the potentially infected GPs, and her husband Bob Saynor, 48, an environmental consultant.
Mr Saynor is being treated for the virus in France with his nine-year-old son and five other Britons.
A British father of two who also stayed at the chalet is in hospital in Majorca.
The 13 Britons to have contracted the virus include Alan Steele who fell ill on his honeymoon aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off Japan.
Two Chinese nationals are being treated in Newcastle after testing positive for the virus in York.
Brighton pharmacists have sold out of hand sanitisers and face masks.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.
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