The outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus has claimed the lives of 56 people in China. Since it was first detected in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, the novel coronavirus has rapidly spread to other parts of the country, with several cities being sealed off.

Of the 1,320 cases confirmed so far, 1,297 have been reported from China as of January 25, the World Health Organisation said. Twenty-three other cases have been reported from nine other countries.

In India, no cases have been confirmed yet but nearly 200 people have been put under observation in Kerala and Maharashtra. Here is a quick look at how the virus affects human health and what India is doing to prevent an outbreak.

What is the novel coronavirus and how does it affect human health?

According to the World Health Organisation, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging from a common cold to severe diseases like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

The novel coronavirus is a new strain that was not previously identified in humans. The symptoms include fever, cough, shortness in breath and other breathing difficulties. In severe cases, some signs of the virus could also include causing pneumonia, kidney failure and even death.

Coronaviruses circulate among animals and have the capability of transmitting between animals and humans, and from an infected person to another. So far, no vaccine or specific treatment has been produced to cure the novel coronavirus, the WHO said. But the symptoms can be treated based on the patient’s condition.

When and where did the current outbreak begin?

The first instance of the novel coronavirus was reported in Wuhan in central China in December 2019. Scientists believe snakes – the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra – may be the original source of the newly discovered virus.

Since December, the number of cases reported from the city and the country have rapidly increased. The thousands of cases reported in China also include five cases from Hong Kong, three from Taipei and two from Macau, according to the WHO.

What is the latest situation in China?

So far, 56 deaths have been reported in China and around 56 million residents in 18 cities across the country remain under a lockdown. Wuhan was sealed off on January 23 and Chinese authorities started to build a 1,000-bed hospital in the city that has around 11 million residents.

As part of other precautionary measures, private vehicles were banned from entering the central districts of Wuhan from January 26.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called the spread of the virus a “grave situation”, the BBC reported. “Life is of paramount importance,” Xi said at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee. “When an epidemic breaks out, a command is issued. It is our responsibility to prevent and control it.”

The outbreak has began at a time when thousands of residents in China are expected to travel for the Lunar New Year celebrations, which have also been cancelled in several cities.

A security guard closes a gate at the Sihui inter-city station in Beijing after the city stopped inter-province buses services on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Which other countries have confirmed cases of novel coronavirus?

The novel coronavirus outbreak has spread globally as 23 cases were reported in nine countries, according to WHO, with the maximum from Thailand. Other countries include Japan, Nepal, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, United States of America, Australia and France.

Twenty-one of the reported cases had travel history to Wuhan but one confirmed case from Vietnam did not have any travel history to the city. One case reported in Australia had direct person-to-person contact with an infected patient.

Several countries including France, Russia and US decided to evacuate their nationals from Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus, the BBC reported.

Have any cases been confirmed in India?

So far, no cases of novel coronavirus have been confirmed in India. But nearly 200 people have been kept under observation in Kerala and Maharashtra.

A senior health official of the Kerala government told PTI that 179 people were under home surveillance while seven others were in various hospitals. One person each from Thrissur, Thiruvananthapuram, Pathanamthitta and Malappuram and three from Ernakulam were in the isolation wards of various health centres in the state.

Since January 19, around 1,789 passengers have been thermally screened at Mumbai airport, PTI reported. Three passengers were kept under observation. Of these, two have tested negative for the virus. The medical results of the third passenger are awaited.

What steps has India taken to tackle the situation?

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan reviewed the preparedness of the country on January 25. The minister also stated on Twitter that he had assured support to the Uttarakhand government for screening at the Nepal border where one case has been confirmed.

Vardhan stated that screening for the virus has started at airports across seven cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi.

The ministry has issued appeals to passengers who have a travel history to China since January 1, 2020, to call a designated helpline number and report to the nearest health facility if they experience symptoms such as cough, fever or forms of respiratory illness.

Union Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar stated on Sunday that the Indian Embassy in Beijing was “constantly checking the health and well being” of Indians in China. The embassy in Beijing stated that it was in contact with Indian citizens, especially students, in Hubei Province where Wuhan is located. The embassy launched helpline numbers on which Indians in China could contact them on.

Around 700 Indians study in Wuhan and other neighbouring areas, and many managed to leave China before it was sealed off. The external affairs ministry has requested China to permit over 250 Indian students stuck in Wuhan to leave the city, PTI reported.

But some of those who were unable to leave said that there was no cause for worry. A group of 20 students from Kerala, who are pursuing their medical studies in Wuhan said they were safe and that they hoped to return to India soon, Manorama reported on January 25.

What precautions can Indians take?

On January 25, the Union Health Ministry issued a travel advisory to those from India visiting China, PTI reported. The ministry urged those travelling to China to cut short their plans if they face symptoms such as cold, fever or cough.

The WHO has recommended several ways to take precaution against the novel coronavirus. Some of these guidelines include frequently washing hands with soap and water, covering your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, avoiding close contact with anyone who has a fever or cold, avoiding contact with animals and avoiding raw or undercooked animal products.