A mysterious new type of pneumonia linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, is caused by a novel coronavirus, Chinese state media reported today (January 9). The reports come a day after the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that multiple known viruses had been ruled out as a cause of the outbreak, and that a coronavirus was the likely cause. The virus had sickened at least 59 people in China as of Sunday, and according to the Associated Press, one suspected case—a woman who fell ill after returning from China—has been identified in South Korea.
Xinhua reports that the virus was identified by the Chinese Academy of Engineering’s Xu Jianguo based on tests of samples from 15 patients with the illness. Known coronaviruses include some that cause a cold, as well as the pathogens behind severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
“Preliminary identification of a novel virus in a short period of time is a notable achievement and demonstrates China’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks,” the WHO’s Gauden Galea says in a statement quoted by multiple news outlets.
“If the Chinese truly have sequenced the virus and they’ve demonstrated that it’s present in other patients, [that] means there’s a PCR diagnostic test available. And the Chinese need to make that available to the rest of the world immediately,” Ralph Baric, a coronavirus expert at the University of North Carolina, tells STAT. He explains that coronaviruses could be transmitted to people from bats, or through a different animal species that had been infected by a bat.
“I am stunned by the timeline and speed of this isolation and characterization, if it’s all true,” says Matthew Frieman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in remarks to STAT. He expressed skepticism about Chinese authorities’ claim that the virus can’t be transmitted between humans, saying, “I don’t know how you know that at all.” Given the number of reported cases, he says, it’s not likely that animal-to-human transmission is the only way the virus can spread.
David Hui, an emerging infections expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, shares a similar take with The New York Times. “So, there are still a lot of question marks,” he says. “It’s premature to say that there’s no human-to-human transmission.”