- Is there a cure? Does folk medicine work? Answering the questions about the epidemic that has sparked a torrent of rumour-mongering on social media
- Unverified claims and conspiracy theories are making officials’ jobs harder
China's health authorities are racing against the clock to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has spread worldwide since breaking out in the central city of Wuhan more than a month ago. At the same time, officials are battling a torrent of rumours and unverified news about the outbreak. Here are some common questions:
1. Can the virus be transmitted among humans?
China's top Sars expert, Zhong Nanshan, confirmed last week that human-to-human transmission of the virus can happen, after Wuhan's health commission initially said no proof existed that it could spread from person to person.
Confirmation of human-to-human transmission has since been supported by medical studies, including one published in the medical journal The Lancet on Friday by scientists from Hong Kong University and China's State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Experts, however, are still trying to determine how easily the virus can be spread between humans, and if airborne transmission is feasible.
National Health Commission minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday that, unlike Sars, the coronavirus was contagious even in an incubation stage that could last up to 14 days. Ma added that some infected with the virus may not show any symptoms and further risks from the virus' potential mutations remain unknown.
"At present, the rate of development of the epidemic is accelerating," Ma said. "I am afraid that it will continue for some time, and the number of cases may increase."
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The infected people are mostly aged between 40 and 60, Chinese health officials said. However, the confirmed infected cases also include a two-year-old girl in Guangxi province and a nine-month-old infant in Beijing, indicating that young children and infants were not immune to the virus.
Answer: Yes, the virus can be transmitted among humans.
2. Is there a confirmed cure for the virus?
Scientists have not yet found an effective cure for the recently identified strain, which can cause a wide range of symptoms in patients, including diarrhoea.
Most of the deaths so far have been of elderly and middle-aged people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, but the youngest-known victim was a 36-year-old man from Hubei province.
Beijing's health commission has previously said it would use HIV retroviral drugs as part of its treatment plan for coronavirus infection.
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An official at the US National Institutes of Health last week said the organisation was developing a coronavirus vaccine that could begin human trials in three months. Meanwhile, Chinese and American scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, the University of Texas and Fudan University in Shanghai are also in the initial stage of developing a separate vaccine.
Answer: No, there is no confirmed cure for the virus.
3. Do folk medicines like banlangen have any effect on the coronavirus?
Social media posts have touted natural treatments such as gargling salt water and eating garlic cloves as potential coronavirus remedies. However, the National Health Commission last week dispelled rumours that drinking a mixture of smoked vinegar and the traditional Chinese medicine banlangen could cure the pneumonia caused by the virus.
Zhang Hua, a respiratory doctor at Beijing Hepingli Hospital, was quoted by the NHC as saying that banlangen was effective against the common cold, but not the coronavirus.
Answer: No, traditional folk medicines like banlangen are only for the common cold and not the coronavirus.
4. Can wearing a surgical mask protect me from the virus?
Face masks have become a ubiquitous sight in mainland China and Hong Kong after the number of coronavirus cases spiked in the past week. As stocks of surgical masks run out in shops and at online platforms countrywide, manufacturers have struggled to keep up with demand.
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Surgical masks may prevent the wearer from spreading disease via droplets from the nose and mouth. But the lack of an airtight seal between the mask and the wearer's face means that there is still some risk of contracting the virus.
Medical experts including the World Health Organisation have recommended other preventive measures such as frequent hand-washing, covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing and avoiding the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products.
Answer: Surgical masks offer only basic protection from the virus.
5. Does checking the temperature of travellers at transport hubs like airports and train stations stop the virus from spreading across borders?
It has been confirmed that infected patients may not always show symptoms of the pneumonia-like illness but still can be contagious during an incubation period that can last up to 14 days.
According to David Heymann, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, fever surveillance at borders is not 100 per cent effective, as people can easily pass temperature screening when no symptoms appear.
"The most important thing with borders is to tell people where to go if they should get a fever, sore throat or shortness of breath … and at the same time strengthen the disease detection systems in hospitals, clinics and other places in the countries so that it's easier to pick up these cases should they occur," Heymann said.
Coronavirus: all travellers from China to be screened at Singapore airport
Last week, a woman from Wuhan with mild fever symptoms got past airport screeners in France by taking medicine that brought her temperature down. She was later traced by the Chinese embassy in France. As a result, Chinese embassies now urge citizens travelling overseas to comply with airport health checks.
The virus has prompted a number of airports globally to introduce heightened screening and disinfection measures for travellers from Wuhan and China.
Answer: Temperature monitoring at transport checkpoints cannot stop the virus from spreading across borders.
6. Has it been confirmed that the virus originated from wild animals in a seafood wholesale market in Wuhan?
China's National Health Commission said on Saturday that 33 environmental samples collected from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus. These came mostly from the stalls in the western section of the market, which sold wild animals.
Experts have still not determined which species of animal passed on the illness to humans, but at least two studies indicate that it was likely to have originated in bats " natural incubators of coronaviruses.
However, a report published in The Lancet last Friday now challenges views that blame the outbreak on the seafood market. The report cites studies showing that 13 of the first 41 hospitalised patients had no connection with the seafood market.
"That's a big number, 13, with no link," Daniel Lucey, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Georgetown, was quoted as saying.
The Lancet report puts the onset of the earliest case at December 1.
Nevertheless, the Chinese government imposed an indefinite blanket ban on the wildlife trade on Sunday.
"They need to bring this to a close. I understand that it's culturally harder for people to see, but the fact is it's a threat to the world," said W. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.
Answer: More studies are required to confirm the connection, but the trade of wild animals has been banned in China.
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