One Health

Virus in China Is Part of a Growing Threat

New type of so-called coronavirus is possible cause of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan


Betsy McKay

Updated Jan. 10, 2020 9:26 pm ET

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Chinese scientists identified a new type of so-called coronavirus as a possible cause of the outbreak in the city of Wuhan, where 59 people have been sickened, with seven in critical condition.

Chinese authorities say they have found coronavirus in patients, but haven’t confirmed it as the underlying cause of the illnesses. But virologists and epidemic experts say it is likely.

That is because Wuhan has all the ingredients for a coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Osterholm and other experts say: a big, densely populated city with live animal markets where people and possibly infected pigs, bats or other mammals mingle.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect mostly pigs, cats and other animals. They can also jump from animals to humans, and from one human to another.

Seven strains are known to infect humans, including the virus in Wuhan, causing illnesses in the respiratory tract. Four of those strains cause common colds. Two others, by contrast, rank among the deadliest of human infections: severe acute respiratory syndrome, known as SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.

Coronaviruses mutate rapidly, essentially making mistakes easily as they copy their genome to produce offspring.

Investigators searching for the source of the SARS virus first found it in civet cats, an animal often eaten in the region of southern China where humans first were infected. 

SARS changed the game for virologists as the first coronavirus that was deadly to humans. Before that, it was known as a virus causing common colds. MERS is even deadlier. 

More new human coronaviruses are likely to emerge, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. organization that identifies and researches emerging viruses around the world, including tracing SARS and MERS to bats. “Our ecology is changing,” he said. “We’re exposed more to animal pathogens.”

“We have a new coronavirus emerging every 10 years,” Dr. Sheahan said. “As we come into contact with animals that we didn’t come into contact with before, I think we’re going to see this more and more often.”