Scientists in China may have uncovered the culprit in the mystery outbreak of pneumonia from central China that has sickened almost 60 people in the region: a new strain of coronavirus.
The novel virus was sequenced from the sample of a single patient, and then found in subsequent patients, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the researchers added that this finding is not conclusive proof that the virus is "the underlying cause of sickness in all the patients."
So far, there have been 59 cases of "viral pneumonia," including seven people in critical condition. The World Health Organization (WHO), which described the illness as "pneumonia of unknown cause," stated that there is "no evidence of human-to-human transmission and no health care worker infections have been reported." The WHO added that all patients have been isolated and are receiving treatment, with the main clinical symptoms being fever and "chest radiographs showing invasive lesions of the lungs," though some patients have reported difficulty breathing.
Preliminary investigations by the Chinese authorities, as reported by the WHO and media outlets, traced the origins of the mystery illness to a seafood market in Wuhan City in central China, where some patients were operating as dealers or vendors. But as the Washington Post noted, while authorities shut the market down on Jan. 1, the 1,000-stall bazaar "sold not only seafood, but marmots, spotted deer, and venomous snakes" and was described as "filthy and messy."
Given that there are no reports of human-to-human transmission, the mystery illness may be zoonotic, or caused by pathogens that spread from animals to people. The Journal reported that the Wuhan strain resembles the bat coronavirus that was a precursor to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak that plagued Asia and much of the world in 2003, which sickened 8,100 people and killed 774, according to CDC data. However, given advances in infection control training and diagnostic capabilities, a SARS-like global epidemic seems unlikely, one expert told the Journal.
The Post reported that 163 close contacts of the patients are being followed up carefully; the WHO said "environmental sanitation and further hygiene investigations are underway." The CDC also issued a low-level travel alert advising travelers to China's Wuhan area to "avoid living or dead animals, animal markets, and contact with sick people."