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Coronavirus Spreads, China Closes Off Cities

Wuhan, China —(Map)

A mystery disease that began in Wuhan, China has begun spreading rapidly. To try to limit the spread of the disease, China has taken the extreme step of closing off several large cities and canceling Chinese New Year celebrations.

In early December, the first case of a new illness was found in Wuhan. The disease, which causes pneumonia, had not been seen before, but scientists identified it as a coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have a halo, or crown-like (corona) appearance when viewed under an electron microscope.
Coronaviruses are viruses that have a spiky ring around them like a crown when viewed with a powerful microscope.
(Source: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Coronaviruses
Coronaviruses are viruses that have a spiky ring around them like a crown when viewed with a powerful microscope. Though there are many coronaviruses which affect animals, until recently, only six coronaviruses were known to affect humans. Four of these cause common colds. The other two cause more serious lung illnesses, and can be deadly.

Experts say the virus came from a Wuhan seafood market which also sold live animals. The market has been closed. Scientists believe the virus may have jumped from animals to humans, but they don’t know yet what animal the virus came from. Learning that could help them figure out how to control the virus.

A pedestrian in a face mask walks past the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market market in Wuhan, which was closed after a novel coronavirus was determined to originate there.
Experts say the virus came from a Wuhan seafood market (shown above) which also sold live animals. The market has been closed. Scientists believe the virus may have jumped from animals to humans.
(Source: SISTEMA 12 [CC BY-SA], via Wikimedia Commons.)

At first scientists believed that the virus couldn’t be passed between humans. Health care workers who treated people with the virus did not seem to be getting sick.

That now appears to be wrong. Last week, the number of cases began to shoot up quickly. The virus has made at least 800 people sick. Though most cases were in China, the virus has been confirmed in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam. Twenty-five people have died, mainly older men with medical problems.

2019-nCoV global cases. Individual sources are listed in the source code.
At first scientists thought that the virus couldn’t be passed between humans. That appears to be wrong. As the graph shows, over the last week, the number of cases began to shoot up quickly. The virus has made over 800 people sick and 25 people have died.
(Source: Yifei He [CC BY-SA], via Wikimedia Commons.)

In 2002 and 2003 the world struggled with another scary coronavirus called SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome). SARS also began in China. At the time, China tried to keep news about SARS quiet. As a result, SARS spread quickly and affected the whole world. Worldwide, over 800 people were killed.

Though China shared more information this time, some people think China still may not have been open enough about the virus.

Map of the 2019-nCoV outbreak as of 23 January 2020.
Most cases are in China, but the virus has been confirmed in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US, and Vietnam. The red colors show the known cases in China and other countries. The light blue shows where there may be cases, but it’s not certain yet.
(Source: Pharexia [CC BY-SA], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Some experts believe there may be many more infected people than have been reported. China’s hospitals haven’t been able to deal with all the people showing up with fevers.

China has now taken the unusual step of cutting off Wuhan and nearby cities* to limit the spread of the virus.

Panorama of Hanyang, Hankou and Wuchang (2017).
China has now taken the unusual step of cutting off Wuhan and nearby cities to limit the spread of the virus. In all, around 20 million people will be prevented from leaving the area. This picture of Wuhan is from 2017.
(Source: 射手座2017[1] [CC BY], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Wuhan’s train stations, bus stations, and airport have been shut down. Traffic is being stopped on roads leading from the city. In all, around 20 million people will be prevented from leaving the area.

The government says food and supplies will be brought to the area and that thousands more hospital beds will be added.

Wuhan Medical Treatment Center,
China’s hospitals haven’t been able to deal with all the people showing up with fevers. The government says food and supplies will be brought to the area and that thousands more hospital beds will be added. The picture shows Wuhan Medical Treatment Center.
(Source: VOA Chinese.)

Blocking off Wuhan may limit the spread of the disease, but it won’t stop it. Cases of the virus have now been reported in almost all areas of China, including Hong Kong.

Chinese New Year, which begins on Saturday, is China’s busiest travel time. Chinese people are expected to take billions of trips during the 40 day period around the holiday.

Crowded train station in Shanghai, China in 2019.
Chinese New Year, which begins on Saturday, is China’s busiest travel time. Chinese people are expected to take billions of trips during the 40 day period around the holiday. The picture shows a train station in Shanghai, China in 2019.
(Source: Arend Kuester, via Flickr.com.)

China has canceled large public celebrations of Chinese New Year and closed some popular tourist sites.

Around the world, other countries are carefully checking passengers from China in an attempt to contain the disease. So far, experts say the risks are very low in most countries outside of China. Even so, they are watching the disease carefully.

* The cities that have been closed off are: Wuhan, Huanggang, Ezhou, Zhijiang and Chibi. Together these cities hold more people than New York, London, and Paris combined.

Wuhan, China


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