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FACTBOX-What we know about the new coronavirus in China

Feb 5 (Reuters) - The rapid spread of a new coronavirus in China is alarming health experts. Here is what we know - and do not know - about the virus:

HOW DANGEROUS IS THE VIRUS?

The new virus, identified by scientists as 2019-nCoV, is a coronavirus, a family of viruses that include the common cold and more serious diseases such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Coronavirus infections have a wide range of symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties.

Statistics from China indicate that just over 2% of people infected with the virus have died, suggesting that it may be deadlier than the seasonal flu but less deadly than the coronaviruses behind SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

The SARS virus killed about 10% of all infected individuals, while the MERS outbreak in 2012 had a fatality rate of around 35%.

Many of those who have died had pre-existing medical conditions or were elderly, those with weakened immune systems.

HOW IS IT TRANSMITTED AND HOW CAN IT BE PREVENTED?

The virus can be transmitted via droplets when an infected person breathes out, coughs or sneezes. It can also spread via contaminated surfaces such as door handles or railings.

Experts have said that it is more easily transmitted than the SARS virus. The incubation period is up to 14 days and people may be able to infect others before symptoms appear.

In order to reduce the likelihood of transmission, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that people frequently wash their hands, cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, and avoid close contact with those who are sick.

DO FACE MASKS HELP?

Millions of people worldwide have taken to wearing face masks in public since the outbreak began. But how useful are they?

"We recommend the use of masks for people who have symptoms ...because the virus transmits through droplets," says medical expert Sylvie Briand.

But they do not guarantee protection against infection.

"For people who don't have symptoms, the mask in fact is not useful," Briand adds.

"The mask itself doesn't protect completely, and that is why you need to continue to wash hands regularly, because of the risk without realising it people touch infected surfaces and then touch eyes or the mask. So there the masks represent a false security."

The American Centers for Disease Control's advice is that that face masks are not required for the general public.

IS THERE ANY TREATMENT?

There is no vaccine.

Chinese scientists were able to quickly identify the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus and shared it publicly. Scientists in Australia have developed a lab-grown version of the virus, a major step toward creating a vaccine. Drugmakers around the globe expect to begin testing experimental vaccines on humans in about three months.

The Chinese government suggests taking two lopinavir/ritonavir pills, antiviral drugs used to treat HIV, and inhaling a dose of nebulized alpha-interferon twice a day.

Drugmaker AbbVie Inc says China is testing the HIV drug Aluvia, which is also known as Kaletra, on patients. It is a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir.

Gilead Sciences Inc is testing an experimental Ebola antiviral therapy on patients with the coronavirus.

WHERE HAS IT SPREAD?

About 99% of the over 20,000 cases have been reported in China. Another 176 cases have been reported in 24 other countries and regions, according to the WHO.

At least 490 people have died in China, one person has died in Hong Kong and one person has died in the Philippines.

Thailand has highest number of infections outside China.

It took the new coronavirus 48 days to infect the first 1,000 people. It took SARS 130 days to infect 1,000 people. It took MERS 2.5 years to infect 1,000 people.

WHAT ARE AUTHORITIES DOING?

The Chinese government has virtually locked down the central province of Hubei, home to 60 million people and its capital city of Wuhan at the centre of the outbreak.

China is facing mounting isolation as airlines suspend flights to its mainland cities.

The United States and Australia have banned entry to foreign nationals who have recently traveled to China. The United States has not taken more drastic actions like banning all flights from China.

Many countries have evacuated their citizens from Hubei and are putting them in quarantine or isolation upon return.

The WHO has not recommended curbs on travel or trade with China.

WHERE DID THE VIRUS COME FROM?

The virus is believed to have originated late last year in a food market in Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife. Health experts think it may have originated in bats and then passed to humans, possibly via another species.

Genetics of the new virus https://tmsnrt.rs/2vAU9KZ)

(Compiled by Lisa Shumaker, Soraya Ali in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Bill Berkrot and John Stonestreet)