Boris Johnson press conference amid calls for tough coronavirus action

Boris Johnson warns the UK will NOT be able to contain coronavirus outbreak as he holds press conference saying there will be tougher new guidance to try delay the spread

  • Boris Johnson chaired meeting of Cobra emergency committee on coronavirus
  • Ministers are preparing frantic bid to slow down the spread of the killer disease 
  • Fourth UK death has been confirmed as infections take hold around the world
  • Have you got a coronavirus story? Email [email protected] 

Boris Johnson warned the UK will not be able to contain the coronavirus outbreak today as he confirmed advice will be stepped up to delay the spread – but not yet.

The PM heralded a toughening of the response at a press conference in Downing Street after chairing a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee.

But still stopped short of meeting demands to shifting the official strategy from the ‘contain’ phase to focus on efforts to delay the spread. 

Alongside Mr Johnson, Chief medical Office Chris Whitty said that at some point cases were likely to start accelerating dramatically.

Within a fortnight, anyone with a minor fever or cough would be asked to isolate themselves for seven days to try to avoid infecting others. 

Mr Johnson said: ‘We remain in the ”contain” phase of the outbreak, but watching what is happening around the world our scientists believe that containment is unlikely to work on its own,’ he said. 

‘There is no hiding from the fact that the coronavirus outbreak will present a significant challenge for the UK, just as it does in other countries. But if we continue to look out for one-another to pull together in a united and national effort i have no doubt that we can and we will rise to that challenge.’ 

Prof Whitty said: ‘We are now very close tot he time, probably within the next 10 to 14 days … where we should move to a situation where we say ”everybody who has even minor respiratory tract infections or a fever, should be self-isolating for seven days afterwards”.’ 

There has been speculation that soon people will be advised to work from home where possible, and vulnerable people – the elderly or those with long-term health problems – urged to stay at home to avoid becoming infected.

More drastic options include pubs, church halls and schools being closed and football matches called off – although ministers stress those moves are more likely later in the crisis. 

However, former Tory Cabinet minister Rory Stewart said the example of China, and his experience in the Ebola outbreak in Africa last year, showed Mr Johnson could not afford to wait. ‘What you will find is that the government will eventually close schools,’ he told LBC radio. ‘We should be doing it tomorrow.’ 

The PM teed up a toughening of the response as he gave a press conference in Downing Street after chairing a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee

Almost 300 people in the UK have now been diagnosed with the coronavirus five weeks after the first two patients – a mother and son in York – were confirmed on January 31

Grant Shapps (left) and Rishi Sunak were at the Cobra meeting in Whitehall today

Former Tory Cabinet minister Rory Stewart told LBC the example of China, and his experience in the Ebola outbreak in Africa last year, showed Mr Johnson could not afford to wait

Public Health England has announced the UK’s fourth death, and today it was confirmed 48 more patients, including five in Scotland and two in Wales, have been diagnosed with the life-threatening illness which has left millions living in fear.

The UK’s total infection toll now sits at 321, with the number having risen almost eight-fold in the space of a week. Outbreaks in Italy, France, Germany and Spain have also dramatically increased in size.

The economy is being battered by the consequences of the outbreak, with the UK’s FTSE 100 index suffering the worst drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

A woman wearing a face mask as she walked through the arrivals gate at Gatwick Airport, London, this morning

A family are pictured wearing face masks outside Buckingham Palace today

Mr Johnson told the Cobra meeting this morning that tackling the outbreak will require a ‘national and international effort’.

He told meeting: ‘I am confident the British people are ready to play their part.’

The Cobra committee was expected to decide whether the UK should officially move from the ‘contain’ to the ‘delay’ phase of the Government’s battle plan to deal with coronavirus.  

Chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, were there.


The Government will today consider upgrading its efforts to stop the coronavirus.

It is using a four-point scale taken from an official ‘coronavirus action plan’ which was launched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street last week. 

Efforts are currently in the first phase, named ‘contain’, but could escalate to ‘delay’.

Future efforts in the Delay phase could include school closures, encouraging people to work from home and cancelling large public gatherings such as the London Marathon.

The efforts would be added on to a public information campaign which launched last week and is urging people to wash their hands more often – increasing engagement with the public is an element of the Delay phase which was started early.

And efforts from the Contain phase, such as isolating people confirmed to have the virus and updating travel and health advice, will be continued. 

However, the discussions ended with no change to the stance. 

Mr Stewart criticised the government for not taking drastic action immediately.

The former Cabinet minister and London Mayor hopeful told LBC that Mr Johnson should not be pushing the decision on to scientists, and schools should be closed.

‘I feel the government should be moving faster and I’m afraid there are many reasons that governments tend to be too slow. One of them is that the costs of acting early are always very very high,’ he said.

‘I’m afraid we need to move fast to limit the exposure.

‘I would be, for example, shutting down all schools now. I would also be banning large gatherings.’

Mr Stewart added: ‘Only the leader can decide whether to close the school today or leave it another week. No scientist can tell you that because these are judgement calls…

‘You are an act early person or you are someone who is hoping it will be alright.’

The Government’s battle plan has four phases – the latter two are called ‘research’ and ‘mitigate’.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said: ‘We remain in the contain phase but it is now accepted that this virus is going to spread in a significant way.’ 

Asked whether the government was being slow to act, the spokesman said the response was based on scientific advice. ‘From the beginning of the outbreak we have based all of our decisions on the best available scientific advice and we will continue to do so,’ he said. 

Last week, Professory Whitty said UK efforts are already partly in the ‘delay’ phase – which includes public health campaigns to warn people about the virus – but it has not been officially declared.

A change would raise the prospect of schools closing, large events like London Marathon being cancelled and relaxed sick pay rules so that people can receive statutory pay from their first day of illness. 

The World Health Organization’s Dr David Nabarro said on BBC Radio 4 this morning: ‘It is not just the big events. I want to stress it is also gatherings in community halls, in religious spaces and services, and also in pubs and the like.

Mr Johnson was joined at the press conference by chief medical officer Chris Whitty (left) and chief science officer Patrick Vallance (right)

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is seen in Downing Street ahead of this morning’s Cobra meeting, which was also attended by Paymaster General Penny Mordaunt (right)

‘It will be that sort of gathering that the Government will look at, as well as of course the big events.’  

Writing in The Sun today, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries said: ‘It is now likely the virus is going to spread so we are stepping up planning to delay the peak of the outbreak to reduce the number of patients coming into the NHS during our busy winter period.

‘We may in the future recommend certain measures, such as working from home or asking more vulnerable people to stay at home.’

The high level discussions come as:

  • Supermarkets placed restrictions on items including pasta, anti-bacterial wipes and hand soap in a bid to prevent shoppers from stockpiling, amid reports of people panic-buying in shops;
  • The Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said it was ‘working intensively’ with US authorities on arranging a flight for British nationals on the coronavirus-hit Grand Princess cruise ship due to arrive in Oakland, California, on Monday;
  • British tourists were warned to avoid all but essential travel to large parts of northern Italy which is under a coronavirus quarantine, including Milan and Venice;
  • Travellers returning from the lockdown areas in northern Italy were advised to self-isolate if they have returned to the UK in the last 14 days, even if have they have no coronavirus symptoms;
  • The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport prepared to host a meeting with governing bodies and broadcasters on Monday to discuss how to handle the Covid-19 outbreak’s potential impact on the sporting calendar;
  • Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said expert teams had been brought together to tackle the potential spread of ‘misinformation and digital interference’ around coronavirus.

Simon Stevens, the chief executive officer of the NHS (centre) is pictured walking to the Cabinet Office for today’s Cobra meeting

The coronavirus has now infected more than 110,000 people around the world and killed at least 3,825 – it has reached most corners of the globe except for East Africa

The UK has confirmed 69 new coronavirus cases bringing its total count to 278. Pictured above is a woman wearing a face mask walking past an empty aisle in a London Asda store

The Government’s plans to bring harsher measures into action to stop the virus come after a third person died in the UK on Sunday.

A man in his 60s, who had long-term illnesses, died at North Manchester General Hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.


What is the scale of the problem?

Cases of coronavirus in the UK more than doubled in 48 hours as the country moved towards the ‘delay phase’ of tackling the virus.

A patient with underlying health conditions became the first person in the UK to die after testing positive.

The older patient had been ‘in an out of hospital’ for other reasons but was admitted on Wednesday evening to the Royal Berkshire Hospital and tested positive.

Some 116 people have tested positive, including 105 in England, two in Wales, six in Scotland and three in Northern Ireland. Just two days ago there were 51 UK cases.

China has reported more than 80,000 cases and almost 3,000 deaths. Outside China, there have been more than 12,000 cases and over 200 deaths across more than 75 countries.

How bad could it get?

Half of all coronavirus cases in the UK are most likely to occur in just a three-week period, with 95 per cent of them over a nine-week period, according to England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

Professor Whitty said he had a ‘reasonably high degree of confidence’ that one per cent is at the ‘upper limit’ of the mortality rate for the virus, although Wuhan in China, which has a weaker health system, had seen an eight to nine per cent mortality rate for those aged 80 and over.

What is the Government doing now?

The UK has moved to the delay stage, which means measures can be ramped up to delay its spread, with possibilities including school closures, encouraging greater home working, and reducing the number of large-scale gatherings.

However, officials say closing schools would possibly only have a ‘marginal effect’, adding that children do not appear to be as badly affected by Covid-19 as other groups. 

A man in his 80s in Milton Keynes and a woman in her 70s in Reading were the other two fatalities announced last week.

Cases in the UK are continuing to rise closer to 300 and the majority of people infected with the coronavirus are no longer being admitted to hospital, unless they have bad symptoms or at a high risk of getting pneumonia. 

Escalating numbers mean the virus is all but out of control in the UK and it will continue to spread over the coming days and weeks. 

Environment Secretary George Eustice said he will hold further talks with retailers today on how to support vulnerable groups who may have to self-isolate.

House of Commons speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, will also chair a joint meeting of the House of Commons and House of Lords commissions to discuss Parliament’s response .

Over the weekend, medical experts warned of the pressure being placed on the NHS due to the outbreak.

GP surgeries in Wales are expected to receive packs of protective face masks, gloves and aprons this week to support their treatment of people with suspected coronavirus.

Meanwhile in Italy, around 16 million people have been placed under lockdown – including those in Milan, Venice and Como – as its COVID-19 linked death toll rose to 366.

Extraordinary measures passed by the government have placed restrictions on museums, cinemas, shopping centres and restaurants until the start of April.

The FCO said British nationals are still able to leave Italy without restriction.

Budget airline easyJet said it was cancelling some flights to Milan Malpensa, Milan Linate, Venice and Verona airports, with further flight reductions expected to come.

The FTSE 100 economic index plunged 8.5 per cent this morning and saw its value bomb by £130billion, as markets and the price of oil collapsed on ‘Black Monday’ because of coronavirus.

London’s index of its 100 most valuable companies was predicted to open at least 300 points down this morning – but the drop was worse and hit 550 points as coronavirus cases soared above 110,000 worldwide.

Among the biggest fallers were oil giants BP and Royal Dutch Shell, whose stocks tumbled more than 20 per cent, while travel firm Tui was down more than 14 per cent. 

The FTSE 100 fell off a cliff this morning, dropping more than it has in a single day since the 2008 financial crisis, as global markets continued to panic over coronavirus

Stock markets around the world took a battering this morning as global fears grow – a drop larger than anything since the 2008 crisis hit UK markets and one analyst warned of ‘utter carnage’

The price of oil also bombed today – US West Texas Intermediate crude, one of the main price benchmarks for oil, dropped 27% to $30 per barrel – the lowest level since February 2016


The British Foreign Office has advised against ‘all but essential travel’ to a number of areas in northern Italy as total cases reach more than 7,000. 

It warned citizens to avoid traditional tourist hotspots such as Venice and Milan due to control and isolation measures imposed by Italian authorities and cases of coronavirus reported.

Rome has already placed the Lombardy region, with a population of 16million, on lock-down.

It comes as UK employers are also reported to be sending employees that have recently travelled to Italy home for a two-week isolation period.

The Foreign Office warned against all travel to the Lombardy region alongside the provinces of Emilia Romagna and Piemonte.

It also warned against visiting Pesaro e Urbino in Marche and Treviso and Venice in the Veneto region. 

It first warned against travel to eleven towns in northern Italy on February 25 after 322 coronavirus cases were reported.

The top performer was Tesco, down just one per cent, as Britons ramped up stockpiling amid fears the UK could soon be placed in an Italian-style lockdown. 

Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at, said: ‘This will be remembered as Black Monday. 

‘If you thought it couldn’t get any worse than the last fortnight, think again. It’s utter carnage out there.

‘The oil price shock has totally unnerved investors, while Italy’s decision to quarantine 16 million citizens in the north of the country has left markets feeling like the coronavirus outbreak is out of control – where next? The UK is preparing for the worst.’

Japan’s Nikkei index plummeted 6.2 per cent overnight, while the Australian stock market suffered its worst day since the 2008 crash because coronavirus is now expected to tip the economy into recession.

Stock markets in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Sydney and Saudi Arabia all also dropped, and New York is expected to follow suit later. 

The markets have recoiled after the Italian government this weekend announced it was locking down an area in the north which is home to some 16million people. 

While regions of Italy are under an extreme quarantine in which people face a three-month prison sentence for leaving locked-down areas, Britons are free to travel home without facing penalties.

The death toll in Italy from coronavirus has risen by 133 to 366 while the number of confirmed cases in the country increased by 1,492 to 7,375 last week.

The UK Foreign Office confirmed that British tourists in the northern parts of the country – the worst affected region – ‘are free to return home or complete their holiday’ under guidelines from the Italian government.

They said nationals will not be met by anyone at the airport in Britain, nor will they be put into quarantine or tested. 

Large areas of northern Italy have been put in lockdown and residents face jail time if they try to leave, but tourists are free to return home

Soldiers and police are pictured checking travellers at the Stazione Centrale in Milan, Italy

Milan’s Stazione Centrale is deserted as the region around the city has gone into lockdown amid the spread of more than 7,000 cases of coronavirus in just a couple of weeks


UK holidaymakers who have booked summer trips to Italy face losing money if they want to cancel now because of the coronavirus, a travel trade association has warned.

ABTA The Travel Association said people who have paid for package holidays not due to begin in the next few days will need to wait to see if the situation changes.

On Sunday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated its stance to advise against all but essential travel to parts of northern Italy, including Venice, Milan and Parma.

Anyone imminently due to visit the locations named by the FCO on a package holiday should be offered alternative arrangements by their travel provider and a full refund if there are no suitable options.

If a tour operator refuses, customers may be entitled to compensation under the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements 2018 regulations.

But ABTA said ‘it is too early’ to say that summer holidays cannot go ahead as planned.

‘If you cancel early you may have to pay cancellation charges,’ it added.

Approximately three million British nationals visit Italy every year.

Anyone who has booked flights or accommodation directly should contact their airline and accommodation provider to see what flexibility they are offering.

They should also check their travel insurance as it may cover non-refundable cancellation costs for trips to areas where the FCO is advising against all but essential travel.

But rules for people in the UK could become stricter in the coming days and weeks, and have longer-lasting effects impacting on schools and prisons.

Measures such as releasing ‘low risk’ prisoners from jail and postponing school exams could be implemented to delay the outbreak, according to government plans.

Exam boards are drawing up plans to delay GCSEs and A-levels amid fears the epidemic will be at its height as exam season starts.

The boards are planning for a ‘range of scenarios’, working with regulator Ofqual to prepare for rule changes in case pupils are forced to miss lessons or assessments.

Any who underperform due to fallout from the virus will be awarded ‘special consideration’ grades, while those unable to make an exam will be graded based on previous performance.  

And a Ministry of Justice blueprint revealed that low-risk prisoners could be set free if staff numbers take a hit from the virus.

Proposals are in place to relieve pressure on the system if significant members of staff become ill or are placed in isolation, according to the Sunday Times.

A senior source said: ‘You can shut a school down but you can’t just shut down a prison. Prisoners need to be looked after. They require basic food and provisions.

‘Running the present system would become impossible if 50 per cent of the staff have fallen ill.’ 

Care homes have been advised to go into lockdown in the event of a major coronavirus outbreak, with visitors banned and sick patients confined to their bedrooms.  

And councils are said to be preparing to stop weekly bin collections if they are forced to prioritise services.

A senior Whitehall source said local authorities may have to ‘prioritise certain routes or areas’ such as main roads of the high street. 

Day-to-day life is already starting to change for some in the UK, with supermarkets left with empty shelves this weekend as paranoid shoppers pulled products from stores as the panic surrounding the coronavirus intensified.

One Asda store in Burgh Heath in Surrey (pictured above) was left with a short supply of pasta 

One Tesco store in London (above) was left without any spaghetti and revealed it was limiting purchases to five per customer

Tesco also introduced a limitation on the amount of toilet roll people could purchase 

Pictures from one Asda store in London showed aisles that had been stripped of toilet roll.

And another in Burgh Heath, Surrey, was left with a small selection of long life food products such as pasta and tinned fish after customers raced to the tills amid the chaos surrounding the virus.

Government officials earlier this week had urged people not to panic-buy, but scenes from across the country revealed many were taking no notice, and instead many decided to fill their trolleys to the brim with cleaning products, hand sanitisers and toilet rolls.


Someone who is infected with the coronavirus can spread it with just a simple cough or a sneeze, scientists say.

Nearly 4,000 people with the virus are now confirmed to have died and more than 110,000 have been infected. Here’s what we know so far:

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.

Just a week after that, there had been more than 800 confirmed cases and those same scientists estimated that some 4,000 – possibly 9,700 – were infected in Wuhan alone. By that point, 26 people had died. 

By January 27, more than 2,800 people were confirmed to have been infected, 81 had died, and estimates of the total number of cases ranged from 100,000 to 350,000 in Wuhan alone.

By January 29, the number of deaths had risen to 132 and cases were in excess of 6,000.  

By February 5, there were more than 24,000 cases and 492 deaths.

By February 11, this had risen to more than 43,000 cases and 1,000 deaths. 

A change in the way cases are confirmed on February 13 – doctors decided to start using lung scans as a formal diagnosis, as well as laboratory tests – caused a spike in the number of cases, to more than 60,000 and to 1,369 deaths.

By February 25, around 80,000 people had been infected and some 2,700 had died. February 25 was the first day in the outbreak when fewer cases were diagnosed within China than in the rest of the world. 

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. 

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.

There is now evidence that it can spread third hand – to someone from a person who caught it from another 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 is an epidemic, which is when a disease takes hold of one community such as a country or region. 

Although it has spread to dozens of countries, the outbreak is not yet classed as a pandemic, which is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.

The head of WHO’s global infectious hazard preparedness, Dr Sylvie Briand, said: ‘Currently we are not in a pandemic. We are at the phase where it is an epidemic with multiple foci, and we try to extinguish the transmission in each of these foci,’ the Guardian reported.

She said that 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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