Coronavirus outbreak: Snakes the source of the virus, and what else we know so far

The virus which was first detected in Wuhan province in China, has now infected over 500 people with confirmed cases being reported in several countries.
Coronavirus outbreak: Snakes the source of the virus, and what else we know so far
Coronavirus outbreak: Snakes the source of the virus, and what else we know so far

Health officials from China confirmed 17 people had succumbed to the newly detected Coronavirus strain. A global health alert had earlier been issued and screening and precautionary measures were increased at airports around the world. Here’s what we know so far:

The World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed on January 9, the outbreak of a new strain of the coronavirus. The epicentre of the outbreak had been at a market in China’s Wuhan province. As of Wednesday health officials from China confirmed that 17 people had succumbed to the virus, all of whom were aged between the age of 48 to 89. According to health officials from China, the deceased all had been battling underlying health conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension etc) which led the disease to rapidly progress and lead to their deaths.

There have been 571 confirmed cases and over 300 suspected cases in China alone. In addition, one confirmed case has been reported in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan, the United States, and South Korea, and another three cases have been confirmed in Thailand.

A meeting which was held on Wednesday by the World Health Organisation was extended to proceed well into Thursday to decide if the outbreak in China qualifies as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This comes after several similarities were drawn between the current outbreak and the SARS outbreak of 2002.

Snakes the possible reservoir of the virus?

While it was confirmed that the virus was transmitted to people from a meat market in China’s Wuhan province, a study that was published in the Journal of Medical Virology on Wednesday showed that snakes, specifically the Chinese Krait and the Chinese Cobra, may have been the original source of the virus.

Snakes were being sold abundantly in Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market before it was closed after being identified as the center of the outbreak.

Upon analysing the virus, experts were able to deduce that the current strain of the virus called ‘2019-nCoV’ appeared to be a strain that was related to a strain of the virus found in bats and another strain of unknown origin. Upon further studies, they were able to conclude that snakes were the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for the 2019-nCoV based on its structural similarities to other viruses found in snakes.

Development of a vaccine in the works?

A team of experts from Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, Texas along with scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch, the New York Blood Center, and the Virology Center at Fudan University in Shanghai, China are working together to see if a vaccine can be developed to protect against the virus.

"But vaccine development is not a fast process, and it's not clear whether we would have a vaccine ready to use before this current epidemic ends,” Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, stated according to IANS.

As a precautionary measure, several airports in India including Cochin, Chennai, Mumbai and others have begun conducting screening of passengers arriving from China and Hong Kong. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued a travel advisory to passengers traveling to China.

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