What is the coronavirus?

Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance
12 February 2020

This is an updated version of an article first published on 24 January. We’re regularly updating this article.

On 31 December 2019, the World Health Organization received reports of pneumonia of an unknown cause in Wuhan City in China. Authorities in China quickly identified the cause as a new (or novel) strain of coronavirus in early January.

The coronavirus outbreak has been widely reported in the news. Understandably, when news like this hits the headlines, it’s natural to feel worried.

But it’s important to remember that the UK is monitoring the situation closely, and has plans in place to manage a potential outbreak of diseases like this. Here I’ll explain what the coronavirus is and how the UK is responding.

An image of a person on a laptop

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold, to more severe conditions such as pneumonia, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome (SARS). The strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has caused the outbreak in China is new, and not previously known. It has been named Covid-19 by the World Health Organization.

What causes coronavirus?

These types of virus are spread between animals and humans. The source of the current outbreak hasn’t been confirmed yet but is being investigated. From the evidence available so far, it appears that human-to-human transmission is occurring.  

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of this coronavirus include:

  • respiratory symptoms (like those you have with a cold)
  • fever (high temperature)
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulties

In more severe cases the virus can cause pneumonia, SARS (a severe form of pneumonia), kidney failure and death. It’s important to note though that most cases so far seem to have been mild. The most serious cases in Wuhan seem to have happened in people with pre-existing health conditions.

Who is affected?

So far, coronavirus has been confirmed in a number of countries including China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, Australia and France. Cases are being confirmed on an ongoing basis.

What’s happening in the UK?

A number of people in the UK are being tested for Coronavirus. Several people have tested positive for Coronavirus in the UK.

The situation is being monitored by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE), who are working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO).

‘Moderate’ risk

The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus as a public health emergency of international concern. As such the UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk level from low to moderate. This is so that the government can plan for all situations.

Travel information

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised that you don’t travel to mainland China unless it’s absolutely necessary.

PHE are monitoring the flights to and from the UK and Wuhan. The DHSC and PHE will review their approach and adapt as needed.

If you’ve returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days, there are some important things you need to do:

  • Stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as you would with other flu viruses.
  • Call NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel to the city.
  • If you’re in Northern Ireland, call your GP.

Please follow this advice even if you don’t have symptoms of the virus.

There’s some more detail on things you should do if you’ve returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days, on the government website.

If you’re about to travel back from Wuhan to the UK, there will be a team that will meet your flight with information leaflets, and advice and support for anyone that feels unwell. The team (which includes doctors) will check if anyone has symptoms of coronavirus. They will also give everyone advice on what to do if they become unwell. Encouragingly, the UK is one of the first countries outside of China that has a specific diagnostic test for the virus. The DHSC has also produced clinical guidance on the virus, around detecting and diagnosing it.

It’s important to be reassured that the UK is prepared and well set up to manage new diseases like coronavirus.

How should I protect myself?

If you are travelling to China or returning to the UK from there, basic hygiene measures are important. These include the following.

  • Stay away from unwell people.
  • Avoid contact with animals.
  • Wash your hands really well using running water and soap. If there’s no visible dirt on your hands wash them with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based gel.
  • Wash your hands: after you cough or sneeze; if you’re looking after someone; when you’re preparing food (thoroughly cooking meat and eggs); after eating; after using the toilet; if your hands are dirty, and/or you’ve been near farm or wild animals.


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Dr Luke James
Medical Director Bupa Global and UK Insurance

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