Coronavirus outbreak explained: Death toll surpasses 630, China starts clinical drug trials


Artist's rendering of a man wearing a surgeon's mask.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

China has been battling an outbreak of a pneumonia-like illness, first detected in the central city of Wuhan in December 2019, for over a month. The spate of illnesses is caused by a novel coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, which has now infected over 30,000 Chinese citizens and claimed more than 630 lives.

The illness was first reported to the World Health Organization on New Year’s Eve and in the intervening month was linked to a family of viruses known as “coronaviruses,” the same family responsible for SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, as well as some cases of the common cold. 

There are no approved treatments for coronaviruses, but on Feb. 6, China started enrolling a small number of patients in a clinical trial of remdesivir, an experimental antiviral made by American pharmaceutical company Gilead that has not yet been approved for any use, but has shown promise in lab studies. “While there are no antiviral data for remdesivir that show activity against 2019-nCoV at this time, available data in other coronaviruses give us hope,” Gilead said in a statement. 

A special WHO committee declared a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30, citing “the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems.” Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed outside China, including in the US, leading authorities around the world to begin limiting travel and enforcing quarantines to guard against the spread. 

On Feb. 4, two notable phone manufacturers announced they would be altering their plans at Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress which begins Feb. 24. LG will withdraw from exhibiting and participating, while Chinese company ZTE has canned a press conference planned for the show.

On Feb. 5, Chinese state run media reported a newborn had been diagnosed with 2019-nCoV just 30 hours after birth, opening up the potential for mother-child transmission. Viruses can be transmitted through the placenta, but experts say it’s too early to tell whether this is the case with the novel coronavirus, which is “unlikely” to be passed on in the womb.

On Feb. 7, Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old Chinese doctor who spoke out about the rising cases of pneumonia in an online chat room during the early days of the outbreak, died as a result of 2019-nCoV infection. 

The situation is rapidly evolving. We’ve collated everything we know about the novel virus, what’s next for researchers and some of the steps you can take to reduce your risk.

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What is a coronavirus?

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 single 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 vira