Storm over testing kits delay

Storm over testing kits delay: Experts admit coronavirus equipment will not be ready for at least THREE WEEKS… because no tests have so far been proven to work

  • Experts said rapid coronavirus tests have not yet been proven to be successful 
  • Hopes raised on Wednesday that an ‘antibody’ test could be available next week 
  • Matt Hancock said he had ordered 3.5 million such tests – with more to come
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

It will be weeks before rapid coronavirus tests are available to identify whether someone is safe to return to work, officials have admitted.

In a major blow to the Government, experts said no such tests had yet been proven to work and it could be some time until they go on sale.

Hopes were raised on Wednesday that a revolutionary ‘antibody’ test could be available as soon as next week. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he had ordered 3.5 million such tests – with more to come.

And Sharon Peacock, director of the national infection service at Public Health England, said the tests might be available to the public on Amazon or at Boots within days.

In a major blow to the Government, experts said rapid coronavirus tests (pictured, a blood test) had not yet been proven to work and it could be some time until they go on sale 

But last night officials were forced to backtrack after manufacturers raised doubts over the timeline of delivering the tests. Government sources admitted orders had been made only ‘in principle’, and would be ‘subject to successful evaluation of the tests’, which may take some time.

Several different companies have been approached over contributing to the 3.5 million tests needed, but none is yet ready to supply them.

Manufacturers said they were working around the clock to develop the devices, which can tell someone within 15 minutes whether they are likely to be immune to further infection.

They said it will be three weeks at the earliest before tests are available.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, PHE medical director, predicted it would be a ‘couple of weeks’ at least and said all tests needed to undergo rigorous validation.

These blood tests work like a pregnancy test and a colour develops if the patient is positive

Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, said NHS staff were likely to be prioritised for accessing the tests, so it will be some time before the public got them 

Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, said NHS staff were likely to be prioritised for accessing the tests, so it will be some time before the public got them. 

Professor Whitty added: ‘I do not think this is something we will suddenly be ordering on the internet next week. The one thing that is worse than no test, is a bad test.’

Brigette Bard, chief executive of BioSure UK Ltd – one of the companies in talks with PHE – said there had been a huge degree of ‘miscommunication’ over the industry’s ability to rapidly create the tests.

She said: ‘I would say it would be hugely optimistic to be able to get these tests out in three weeks. Three to six weeks is more likely.’

Two other firms – SureScreen Diagnostics, of Derby, and Bedfordshire-based Mologic Ltd – said they had not been told to start mass-producing the tests.

Labour health spokesman Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘An antibody test would be a welcome and significant development but a lot of confusion has arisen. 

‘It’s unclear how long it will take to get to the public and we don’t know if a test has even been validated yet.’ 

  • Latest coronavirus video news, views and expert advice at mailplus.co.uk/coronavirus

WHY HASN’T THE UK SCALED UP ITS CORONAVIRUS TESTING, AND WHY HAVEN’T HOME-SCREENING KITS BEEN ORDERED YET?

Aren’t home-testing kits already available?

Several British firms have made the home-testing kits, including Derby-based SureScreen.

It claims to have shipped its £6 finger prick tests to Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, UAE, Kuwait and Oman.  

Mologic Ltd – which is based in Bedfordshire – has also produced an antibody test that takes just 10 minutes. 

But it says its diagnostic tool is still ‘five or six months’ away from being ready to be mass produced.

A number of US firms have also developed rapid finger prick tests which are being fast-tracked for use by the US Food and Drug Administration. 

Why isn’t the Government using them? 

Health chiefs are concerned the tests are not accurate enough to be rolled out yet.

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said the ‘one thing worse than no test is a bad test’.

The SureScreen finger prick device is currently being trialled at a Public Health England laboratory in Oxfordshire, but it could take weeks before it is deemed reliable enough to be distributed. 

How much would they cost?

SureScreen charges £6 for one of its tests.

Mologic’s kits cost less than £1 to make and the firm said it would sell the tests to the Government ‘at cost’, meaning without making any profit. 

Could the Government use home-testing kits one day?

Professor Sharon Peacock, director of Public Health England’s National Infection Service, told MPs the devices would be available ‘within days’.

Professor Peacock told the House of Commons Science and Health Committee that Britons would be able to pick them up in Boots or on Amazon.

But England’s CMO said it would be weeks before they were validated and deemed reliable enough for mass use. 

How many people can we test each day?

The UK has repeatedly been slammed for its lacklustre approach to testing. 

Currently tests are only routinely given to people so ill they have to go into hospital, or those who are already on wards – even NHS staff don’t get tested.

Only 5,000 tests are conducted each day.

This is because the crisis has escalated faster than the UK could manufacture tests.

PHE says it has increased its capacity and will be testing 25,000 people within weeks. 

But didn’t Boris Johnson say it would go up to 250,000?

The Government wants to screen a quarter of a million people a day to get on top of the outbreak. 

But Boris Johnson has admitted the country will need to source tests from private companies to fulfill its ambition. 

Test by test: The types of coronavirus kits from 10-minute finger-prick results to a mask which can diagnose instantly that the government could be using amid row over shortage – as PM brands impending antibody check a ‘game changer’

Boris Johnson yesterday announced that coronavirus testing was to be ramped up to 25,000 per day after the government was slammed for potentially allowing tens of thousands of infected people to walk the streets undiagnosed.

Only 5,000 were being swabbed for COVID-19 previously, a fraction of the number seen elsewhere. 

Mr Johnson said a new ‘game changing’ coronavirus test which analyses antibodies in the blood could detect asymptomatic patients and those who have already shrugged off the bug. 

The Prime Minister said this would allow people to know whether they had gained immunity and get back to their working and social lives as soon as possible.   

Public Health England previously said that only patients who meet certain criteria will be able to be tested for the bug and those who were being screened were having nasal swabs. 

The Prime Minister conceded that the NHS will continue to use nasal swab tests that take up to 48 hours to be analysed in a lab.  

Other countries around the world – including the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Italy – have been using testing kits that take just minutes to produce results. 

And in a further development, Oxford University researchers claimed that they have created a new test which analyses viral RNA to detect COVID-19 in just 30 minutes.

Here, MailOnline looks at the cutting-edge testing kits currently being rolled out in other counties and at private clinics in Britain: 

FINGER PRINT TEST

Name: COVID-19 IgM IgG Rapid Test

Manufacturers: BioMedomics

Diagnostic time: 15 minutes 

The blood test is not being used in the UK, despite health bodies in China, Italy and Japan diagnosing patients with it.

On March 5, BioMedomics claimed its ‘quick and easy’ test was ready and being used in South Korea, Japan, Italy, China and some countries in the Middle East. 

After the sample of blood is collected, a technician injects it into the analysis device – which is about the size of an Apple TV or Roku remote – along with some buffer, and waits 15 minutes.

One line means negative, two lines in a spread-out configuration means the sample contains antibodies that the body starts making shortly after infection.

A blood sample is collected, inserted into the reader, a buffer is combined, and results come back within 15 minutes, the company claims 

Two lines closer together mean the person is positive for the later-stage antibodies, and three lines mean the patient is positive for both types of antibodies.  

A small study showed the test produced a correct response 80 per cent of the time.

BOSCH DEVELOPS TEST THAT TAKES JUST 2.5 HOURS AND CAN CHURN OUT 4,000 RESULTS A DAY

Bosch has become the latest firm to develop a coronavirus test to help fight the outbreak.

The home appliances firm has created a test provides that gives results in less than two-and-a-half hours.

The sample is taken from the nose or throat of the patient using a swab and placed inside a ‘cartridge’.

The cartridge is then inserted into a machine, known as Vivalytic, which scours for genes of the virus.

Vivalytic is said to be ‘easy and intuitive’ to operate, according to Bosch.

The device is already used in hospitals and labs to identify a range of bacterial and viral diseases including the flu and pneumonia. 

It will be available in Germany in April and sold in international markets, Bosch said. 

The test can churn out 4,000 results a day per machine, the company said. 

The system does not require any additionally trained personnel, so that even hospital or doctor’s practice staff without special laboratory experience can operate the machines, according to Bosch. 

PHE confirmed it was not using the advanced blood test because it was not accurate enough, and are hoping to develop their own. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also yet to approve it. 

A former PHE strategist said he was ‘not confident’ the test could produce correct results and is therefore unlikely to be rolled out. However, the method was desirable. 

NASAL SWAB

Name: TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit 

Manufacturers: ThermoFisher

Diagnostic time: Four hours 

The DIY test detects specific DNA given off by the coronavirus in the noses of infected patients.

Samples are then delivered to labs where they are analysed and results are produced within four hours.

The test was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration this week and 5million kits will be sent across America in the coming days.

It is hoped the UK will follow suit after representatives from ThermoFisher, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, were seen entering Downing Street last night carrying a box with the tests. 

It is understood ministers were giving a demonstration of how the test works.

FINGER PRICK TEST

Name: COVID-19 Rapid Test Cassette 

Manufacturers: SureScreen Diagnostics

Diagnostic time: Ten minutes 

The private firm, based in Derby, has created a test which can allegedly determine with 98 per cent certainty if a person is infected. 

It involves taking a blood sample via finger prick and then putting it into a screening device.

SureScreen Diagnostics says a prick of blood from the fingertip is sufficient to determine with more than 98 per cent accuracy

The private firm says its test has been validated and is already being used in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, UAE, Kuwait and Oman. Currently, official swap-based methods take between 24 and 48 hours for results to come back

Results are displayed in a similar fashion to those of an at-home pregnancy test within minutes and could potentially save delays in diagnosis. 

SureScreen says its test has been validated and is already being used by private buyers in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, UAE, Kuwait and Oman. 

It is believed around 175,000 tests have been conducted with the SureScreen kit so far. The company claims it has had over two million orders for next month. 

Director David Campbell said: ‘We’ve been working hard to produce a coronavirus test (COVID19) that can be used at the patient side, with capillary blood, easily taken from someone’s fingertip and diagnose them within 10 minutes.

‘There is a big problem with the diagnosis of the disease currently because the standard method of screening is to send samples to the laboratory, which takes a lot of time. 

‘Meanwhile, someone could be spreading the virus without knowing, or having the issue of self-isolation.’  

FACE MASK TESTS

Manufacturers: University of Leicester

Diagnostic time: 12 hours

How it works: Breath test inserted in a mask

Scientists have started a trial of the pioneering £2 gadget, which tests have already proven can detect tuberculosis, a deadly lung infection. 

Scientists have started a trial of the pioneering £2 gadget (pictured), which tests have already proven can detect tuberculosis

The researchers at the University of Leicester and the University of Pretoria designed 3D printed strips of polyvinyl alcohol that are inserted into the mask (pictured)

The masks, which could cost pennies if manufactured on a wider scale, are fitted with strips that soak up droplets from the wearer’s breath, which may be carrying traces of bacterial or viral infection.

The strips can be tested in labs with results coming back within hours. Current tests for coronavirus can take up to 48 hours. 

University of Leicester researchers believe it will be at least two months before they can test the masks on actual COVID-19 patients.

But they are hopeful it will work because it is a respiratory disease, meaning it infects the lungs and can is present in the air people breathe out.  

After 30 minutes, the strips can be tested in a laboratory (pictured)

First, the team have to test the gadgets on dozens of patients with other lung infections to prove they can pick up bugs other than tuberculosis, which they were designed for.

Patients with infections such as flu and bronchitis will have the results from their mask tests compared to those from throat swabs, which are known to be accurate. 

Tests on tuberculosis patients, the only ones that have been done so far, show the masks can detect the killer disease almost 90 per cent of the time.

Leicester’s Professor Mike Barer and colleagues are hopeful they will be successful because the coronavirus infects the lungs in a similar way to tuberculosis.

BREATH TEST 

Manufacturers: Northumbria University, Newcastle

Diagnostic time: Almost instantly 

A breath sampling device that could rapidly identify patients with coronavirus has been developed by British scientists.

The technology, developed by a team at Northumbria University in Newcastle, is still in development and needs further testing.

But experts believe it could change the way the virus is spotted around the world.

A breath test that helps rapidly identify patients with coronavirus has been developed by British scientists (file)

Dr Sterghios Moschos, right, said the test could be used to produce results in minutes

The Northumbria team’s device collects breath samples which can then be tested separately for biological information – known as biomarkers.

These biomarkers, which include DNA, RNA, proteins and fat molecules can signal diseases of the lung and other parts of the body.

People simply breathe into the device, which collects a sample of the breath.

Dr Sterghios Moschos, associate professor at Northumbria University, said: ‘Our ambition is to reduce the need for bloodletting for diagnosis in its broadest sense.’

The device is currently being trialled.

PRIVATE HARLEY STREET CLINIC

Manufacturers: Private Harley Street Clinic

Diagnostic time: Three days

How it works: Nose and throat swab

Price: £375  

More than 2,000 people have ordered a £375 home testing kit from a Harley Street clinic in London after being turned down by the NHS, according to the Daily Telegraph.

In addition to individuals, some 60 firms including oil and telecoms companies, have bought them for their staff. 

On its website, the item can be easily ‘added to cart,’ much in the same way as conventional online products

Dr Mark Ali, director of the Private Harley Street Clinic on London’s world-renowned medical avenue, said his practice was offering a new kit for £375 each

The test is posted to the client’s home or preferred address, where the client takes swabs from both the nostrils and throat. 

The sample is then placed in the box provided and posted back as per the instructions. 

Dr Mark Ali, director of the Private Harley Street Clinic on London’s world-renowned medical avenue, said his practice was offering a new kit for £375 each.

On its website, the item can be easily ‘added to cart,’ much in the same way as conventional online products.

The practice says the test is ‘performed by a world renown UKAS accredited British laboratory and the test results are 100 per cent accurate and do not require further tests to confirm any diagnoses.’

The website hastens to add, that though it oversees the entire process, patients should not attempt to pick up their kits from Harley Street.

‘Please note under no circumstances can this test be done in our clinic or be collected from our clinic.’ The website states.

‘It is sent to your designated address by courier service within 48 hrs. Please refer to the details below and order through the link at the bottom of this page.’

Dr Ali told The Telegraph he has received countless requests from buyers.

‘People are worried sick. They want to get some clarity back in their lives,’ he told The Telegraph. 

‘We’ve got university students in England who want to go back to Nepal, but need to know if they have the disease so they can be let back into their own country.

‘We’ve got a businessman who owns a construction company employing 60 people. He needs to know the state of play, or he risks letting down his customers. So every single person in that company is being tested.’ 

ANTIGEN TEST

Manufacturers: Mologic

Diagnostic time: Ten minutes 

British firm Mologic is working on an antigen test after receiving £1million from the UK Government. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taken on a tour of the Bedford laboratory of Mologic earlier this month

The firm hopes it will take just 10 minutes to produce a result, like that of the antibody test. 

Antigens are parts of a virus that trigger the immune system’s response to fight the infection, and can show up in blood before antibodies are made. 

SALIVA TEST

Manufacturer: myLAB Box

US-based firm myLAB Box is mass producing a home test that requires a saliva swab to be sent away to an overnight lab to be analysed

Diagnostic time: One day  

US-based firm myLAB Box announced this week that it has opened pre-sales of its COVID-19 home test for health professionals, doctors surgeries and pharmacies. 

They require suspected patients to self-collect a saliva swab sample. These samples are sent away to a CLIA-certified lab to be analysed overnight.

myLAB Box also said that free telephone consultations will be made available to those who test positive for the virus.

It is planning to process up to 20,000 tests per day once it is approved by the FDA. It is currently under review. 

FINGER PRICK TEST 

Manufacturer: Scanwell 

Diagnostic time: 15 minutes 

American startup Scanwell has produced a finger prick coronavirus test that takes just 15 minutes to complete at home.

It is posted to users via next-day delivery and is used alongside the Scanwell Health App. 

American startup Scanwell has produced a finger prick coronavirus test that takes just 15 minutes to complete at home. It will work in conjunction with a health app (similar to its UTI test)

The test can be completed and uploaded through the app within 15 minutes, according to the company  

The test is being fast-tracked for approval by the FDA but isn’t expected to hit the US market for another six to eight weeks.

Scanwell is best known for its smartphone-based urinary tract infection screening platform. 

NASAL/THROAT SWABS

Manufacturers: Brunel University London, Lancaster University and University of Surrey

Diagnostic time: Half an hour

Researchers at Brunel University London, Lancaster University and University of Surrey have developed a device to detect COVID-19 in 30 minutes using a smartphone application.

The batter-operated and hand-held costs £100. It works by taking nasal or throat swabs, which are put into the device. 

Researchers at Brunel University London, Lancaster University and University of Surrey have developed a device to detect COVID-19 in 30 minutes using a smartphone application (file) 

 

Then in 30 minutes, it can determine if someone has CoVID-19 using artificial intelligence.

The samples don’t need to go to a laboratory and the same device can test six people at once at a cost of around £4 per person.

The science behind the device has been tested in the Philippines to check chickens for viral infections.

The team has adapted it to detect COVID-19 in humans and is talking with backers to get it urgently mass-produced.

Scientists behind the device say the current system is capable to perform diagnostics at any location with very minimal training.

The researchers believe that the device would be operated by ambulatory care professionals, nurses, and biomedical scientists.

It would also let people self-isolating test themselves and health care workers test patients to help slow the spread of the pandemic and ease the burden on the NHS.

The Xpert Xpress test was developed by the company Cepheid which plans to have it on sale in the US by the end of March

ORAL SWAB 

Manufacturer: Cepheid 

Diagnostic time: 45 minutes 

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorised the first ‘point-of-care’ coronavirus test which can be used in hospitals and emergency rooms, delivering test results in 45 minutes.

The new test was developed by the company Cepheid which plans to have it on sale in the US by the end of March. 

The test will importantly deliver results onsite in 45 minutes at the hospital or emergency room where it is taken, cutting out the time-consuming step of sending the test to a lab. 

A swab is inserted into a screening device, known as GeneXpert Systems, which scours for COVID-19 genes and takes less than an hour to deliver a result.There are 5,000 of these machines located around the U.S. and 23,000 around the world. 

THROAT/NASAL SWAB 

Manufacturer: Bosch

Diagnostic time: Two-and-a-half hours 

The home appliances firm has created a test provides that gives results in less than two-and-a-half hours.

The sample is taken from the nose or throat of the patient using a swab and placed inside a ‘cartridge’ and inserted into a device which scours for genes of the virus.


The home appliances firm has created a test provides that gives results in less than two-and-a-half hours. The sample is taken from the nose or throat of the patient using a swab and placed inside a ‘cartridge’ and inserted into a device which scours for genes of the virus

Vivalytic is said to be ‘easy and intuitive’ to operate, according to Bosch.

The system does not require any additionally trained personnel, so that even hospital or doctor’s practice staff without special laboratory experience can operate the machines.

SALIVA/THROAT SWABS 

Manufacturer: Everlywell

Diagnostic time: Up to one day 

Users collect their own saliva, throat swabs or deep nasal swabs at home and send the samples to labs to be tested for the virus. 

The US-firm, based in Austin, Texas, has sold around 30,000 COVID-19 at-home testing kits across the US to healthcare companies who have used them to test their medics on the front lines of the outbreak. 

But the tests have not been approved by the FDA and the public being advised against using them. The agency says the accuracy of such home testing kits ‘has yet to be clearly determined.’

Everlywell has sold around 30,000 COVID-19 at-home testing kits across the US to healthcare companies

CT SCANS

Who came up with the idea? Mount Sinai Health System, New York

Diagnostic time: 1 hour 30 minutes

How it works: Detects lung damage  

Doctors from The Mount Sinai Health System in New York say CT scans may be faster than nasal and throat swabs at diagnosing coronavirus patients. 

The team were the first in the US to analyze lung scans of patients in China with the highly contagious disease.   

They said they were able to identify specific patterns in the lungs as markers of the virus, also known as COVID-19, as it developed over the course of about two weeks>

Patients who received scans zero to two days after symptoms first appeared had little to no evidence of lung disease in their results like this 19-year-old male who had a CT scan one day after symptoms first appeared

The team said the pattern in the lung of coronavirus patients are similar to scans of patients with SARS and very different from diseases such as bacterial pneumonia (pictured)

The researchers say these quicker diagnoses could help keep patients isolated in early stages of the disease, perhaps even before symptoms appear and when it may not show up on other scans such as chest X-rays. 

‘CT scans are an extremely powerful diagnostic tool, because you can seen the inner organs in a three-dimensional way,’ lead author Dr Adam Bernheim, an assistant professor of diagnostic, molecular and interventional radiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told DailyMail.com.

‘And you can see the manifestation of many diseases.’ 

For the study, published in the journal Radiology, the team analyzed scans of 94 patients at four medical centers in four Chinese provinces.

The patients had been admitted between January 18 and February 2, and all had either recently traveled to Wuhan – the epicenter of an outbreak – or had come into contact with an infected person.

Radiologists reviewed the scan and took notes based on when symptoms first appeared and when the CT scan was performed.

Thirty-six patients received scans zero to two days after reporting symptoms and more than half showed no evidence of lung disease.

The team says this is important because it suggests that CT scans cannot reliably detect coronavirus in its very earliest stages.

Nasal and throat swabs test can identify patients even before patients become symptomatic, although some may still have the virus if they first test negative. 

Its results, however, may take days to get back from the agency’s labs.

But 33 patients who received scans three to five days after symptoms developed had patterns of ‘ground glass opacities,’ or haziness in the lungs. 

‘The lung abnormalities are very round in shape and affect the perimeter of the lung,’ co-author Dr Michael Chung, an assistant professor of diagnostic, molecular and interventional radiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told DailyMail.com.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?

What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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