The current outbreak of the novel coronavirus has been in the news headlines worldwide for the second month in a row, exceeding the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in reaching 811 deaths by last Saturday.
According to China’s National Health Commission, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus recorded in the country has risen to over 37,000, more than those infected by SARS in 2003.
“With 99 per cent of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world as well,” said World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Several Chinese officials have been removed from their positions as the death toll mounts, with it showing no sign of stopping and recording 1,016 deaths in the Hubei province alone. According to the Chinese media, investigations into the virus outbreak across the nation have accelerated.
The senior officials who have been removed included the secretary of the Hubei Health Commission and the head of the commission. They will be replaced by the Deputy Director of China’s National Health Commission Wang Hesheng.
Public anger was stirred in China when the whistleblower doctor who had warned against the coronavirus in its early days died from the virus. Li Wenliang had attempted to warn the authorities against the virus in December last year but was silenced by police who initially thought he was spreading rumours.
The 34-year-old ophthalmologist died after contracting the virus while treating patients in Wuhan.
The virus, first detected in Wuhan in China, has continued to spread in different parts of the world as the affected areas become wider and wider. In Britain, a new coronavirus case was confirmed on Sunday, taking the total of those infected up to four. According to UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, the latest patient was a contact of a previous infected case.
“The patient has been transferred to a specialist centre at the Royal Free Hospital [London], and we are now using robust infection-control measures to prevent any possible further spread of the virus,” Whitty said in a statement.
The last evacuation flight from Wuhan carried 200 people back to the UK, where they were quarantined for 14 days at a conference centre in Milton Keynes.
Eleven people, among them a child, in the French Alps have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, and they are believed to have been infected by the same man. One British man had contracted the virus while at a conference in Singapore before leaving for a holiday at the French Alps. He was only diagnosed when he returned to the UK.
Although there has been speculation about the source of the virus, including from bats and snakes, scientists are still searching for answers and evidences as back up. Chinese officials who have been studying the virus have said that most cluster cases of the virus have been found in the same families.
Cluster cases refer to more than a couple of infected cases within a limited space, according to virus expert Wu Zunyou at China’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. They can be found in families as well as in institutions such as schools, work places and even supermarkets.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.