When a new virus breaks

 On December 31, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization to a mysterious respiratory illness afflicting people in Wuhan, China. On January 7, the authorities said they had identified a new virus, a coronavirus in the same family as the common cold, SARS and MERS.

Journalists like me who cover infectious disease sit up and take notice when “new coronavirus,” “SARS” and “MERS” show up in the same sentence. Add “in China,” the starting point for the SARS outbreak, and we start calling sources. 

Like everyone else, we want to know if the new coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, could become a global threat. Many human disease outbreaks get their start in animals, and this one is no exception, though the exact source is unknown. The virus sprang up in Wuhan, and is now spreading from one person to another. Travelers are carrying the virus around the world. As of January 29, 6,074 cases had been confirmed in 17 countries, and the number is rising.

In 2003, I covered the SARS outbreak, which emerged from an animal market in China. SARS infected more than 8,000 people in 29 countries, killing 774. Those numbers don’t convey the confusion and anxiety of being in the midst of the outbreak. I traveled to Toronto, where the virus was tearing through hospitals, infecting patients and staff. In one ward, 40 percent of the nurses fell ill. Hospitals’ increased oversight of infection-control procedures finally helped stop the virus.

Hard-learned lessons from SARS seem to be helping now. China has been swifter to let the rest of the world know about the new virus on the loose, releasing the genetic sequence of the virus so that scientists worldwide could study it. “Everyone is saying how quick and transparent the process has been this time around,” molecular biology and senior writer Tina Hesman Saey says. A patient test was created, and efforts to build a vaccine are under way.

Here at Science News, we’ve been covering the outbreak from the beginning, with multiple reporters tracking down answers to questions readers may have and asking a lot of questions of our own. Saey, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, dove into how coronaviruses work, how easily they spread and whether this one could be as dangerous as SARS or MERS. When Science News intern Erin Garcia de Jesus, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology, heard reports that the new virus could have come from snakes, as one study suggested, she dug in (SN Online: 1/24/20). Not likely, her sources told her.

This is what journalists call a “developing” story, with the situation changing by the hour. Add in the fact that the outbreak is sparking fear worldwide, and it’s no surprise that incomplete or erroneous information is flying around the internet. At times like this, we strive to be extra scrupulous in our reporting, and be clear about the limits of what scientists know and how that affects people’s health.

We’ll stay on this fast-moving public health story. For the most up-to-date news on the latest science in context, check out sciencenews.org.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.