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Chinese children wear protective masks as they wait to board trains at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on Jan. 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

5 things you need to know about the coronavirus

Janet Nguyen Jan 24, 2020
Chinese children wear protective masks as they wait to board trains at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on Jan. 21, 2020 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This post was updated on Jan. 30, 2020 at 12:20 p.m. ET.

A new strain of coronavirus has spread globally, leaving at least 170 people dead.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its fifth confirmed case in the U.S. on Sunday. The patient is from Maricopa County, Arizona, and had recently returned from Wuhan, China — the city where the outbreak originated.

The other confirmed patients, who had also recently taken trips to Wuhan, include a Chicago-based woman in her 60s, a man in his 30s from Washington state, a man in his 50s from Orange County, and a patient from Los Angeles County.

Here’s a look at what the virus is, where it has spread, and whether a cure will be available soon.

1) What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that can cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses (like the common cold), along with more severe symptoms that can progress to infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The coronavirus we’re hearing about is a newly identified strain that’s been temporarily named 2019-nCoV, and it can spread through human-to-human transmission. Symptoms include fever, cough, breathing difficulties and pneumonia.

2) How many people have been affected by this strain of the virus?

At least 170 people have died from the virus, and more than 7,700 have been infected.

Wuhan, which is home to about 11 million people, is now building a 1,000-bed hospital to deal with the increasing number of patients.

3) Where has the virus spread?

Along with mainland China, there are confirmed cases in the U.S., Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, France, Macau, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Singapore and Taiwan.

4) Is there a cure for the coronavirus?

Right now, there is no vaccine available to protect against infection with the virus. However, Dr. Paul Stoffels — the chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson, told Marketplace Morning Report that there is work underway to find one.

Stoffels said the sequence of the virus — that is, its genetic information — has been available for a few weeks, so laboratories in the pharmaceutical industry have been able to start constructing vaccines.

“The lab technicians and scientists … told me today that they had already advanced the first version of a vaccine into the laboratory space,” Stoffels said. “So that will take several months before it will be able to be tested.”

However, it might take more than a year before a vaccine is ready.

“We are now organized. Ebola was a wake-up call to the world. We kicked it off when the [World Health Organization] called for vaccines, and one year later, we were in the clinic [and] we produced 2 million vaccines,” Stoffels said. “It is possible to do within one year.”

To reduce your risk of infection, the CDC recommends you wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands; and avoid close contact with people who are sick.

5) What measures is China taking to stop the spread of the virus?

Chinese officials have shut down public transportation, movie theaters and internet cafes in the city of Wuhan, according to Jennifer Pak, Marketplace’s China correspondent. Residents have been told not to leave the city without “specific reasons.” 

Countermeasures are also taking place in surrounding cities, and fear of the virus has impacted areas as far away as Shanghai. 

“This time last year, there were a lot of people walking by on Lunar New Year’s Eve, but there aren’t so many now,” fruit stand vendor Qiu Jianxian told Pak. “Many won’t leave their homes because of the coronavirus.”

Tourist attractions in Shanghai like museums and skyscrapers have reportedly closed, but there are two businesses that are now actually doing well: those that sell face masks and food delivery platforms.

Additional reporting by Victoria Craig and Jennifer Pak.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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