What is the coronavirus?


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.

Dr Zoe Wainer
(Updated 3 February 2020)
Head of Public Health and Medical Director, Bupa Australia & New Zealand

The coronavirus outbreak has been widely reported in the news. On 29 January 2020, Australians were advised by the Federal Government to reconsider any plans to travel to China above advice not to travel to the Hubei Province. The travel advisory does not apply to Hong Kong or Macau.

While this news is concerning, it is important to remember that both the Australian and New Zealand Governments are monitoring the situation closely and acting as appropriate.

If you aren’t sure of the facts, here is some information that may help:

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.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of this coronavirus are like those you would have with the flu and can 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 and death. The most serious cases in Wuhan seem to have happened in people with pre-existing health conditions.

Who is affected?

At the moment, there are confirmed cases of coronavirus in several countries including China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, France, Australia and the United States. 

What’s happening in Australia and New Zealand?

The Australian and New Zealand Governments and relevant departments are monitoring the situation closely. The relevant departments are also working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Travel information

Australians are recommended to visit Smart Traveller regularly for advice on travelling to China. New Zealanders are advised to do the same by visiting Safe Travel.

How should I protect myself and others in Australia and New Zealand?

Basic hygiene measures are important in these situations. These include:

  • Stay away from unwell people.
  • Wash your hands very thoroughly 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.

The WHO is not recommending healthy people without respiratory symptoms wear facemasks, as there’s no evidence it will protect them from infection. Wearing masks when it’s not useful can cause unnecessary cost, prevent people who do need them from accessing them, and can “create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as hand hygiene practices."

The advice for people in Australia and New Zealand who have travelled from Hubei Province in the last 14 days, or travelled from or via mainland China on or after 1 February 2020, or been in contact with confirmed novel coronavirus cases, is to self-isolate in their home for 14 days after exposure (e.g. leaving mainland China), other than for seeking individual medical care.

When to get help

If you become unwell with flu symptoms within 14 days of visiting mainland China , or you have had close contact with someone who has travelled to, from or via mainland China in the last 14 days, or you have had close contact with someone confirmed to have a 2019-nCoV infection, please seek medical attention straight away.

Please ring ahead of time to book your appointment and let your doctor know of your symptoms and your travel history. Wear a surgical mask when going outside to protect others,