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Tokyo Olympics chief says coronavirus could disrupt Games

A senior Olympic official in Japan has warned that the coronavirus outbreak could “throw cold water” on preparations for Tokyo 2020, although organisers insist that there are no plans to cancel the Games.

Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee, said he was concerned about the impact the spread of the virus was having in the run-up to the Olympics, which are due to open in 170 days.

“I am seriously worried that the spread of the infectious disease could throw cold water on the momentum toward the Games,” Muto said during a meeting in Tokyo with officials from the International Paralympic Committee. “I hope that it will be stamped out as soon as possible.”

Muto’s concerns were echoed by Saburo Kawabuchi, the mayor of the athletes’ village, where 11,000 competitors will stay during the Games.

“I truly hope that the infectious disease will die down somehow so that we will be able to operate the Paralympics and Olympics smoothly,” he said. “In the worst case we will do our utmost for the athletes so that they will be able to concentrate on performing their best.”

The coronavirus outbreak, which has killed 490 people in mainland China and infected more than 23,000, has disrupted several qualifying events that were due to be held in the country, including those for women’s football and basketball, boxing and badminton.

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. 

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, and there have been human-to-human transmissions in the US and in Germany. As of 5 February, the death toll has climbed to 490 in mainland China. There remains one additional fatality in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. There are 24,505 confirmed cases around the world, with 24,292 being in mainland China. The mortality rate stands at 2.1%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is this a pandemic and should we panic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list.

There is no need to panic. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

There have been no deaths from the virus in Japan, but it has the largest number of infections – 33 – outside China. On Wednesday, 10 passengers onboard a luxury cruise liner off the Japanese port of Yokohama tested positive for the illness, forcing health authorities to place all 3,700 passengers and crew in quarantine for 14 days.

Craig Spence, a spokesman for the Paralympic committee, said: “We have full confidence that the relevant authorities, in particular here in Japan and the World Health Organization, will take all the necessary measures to address the situation.”

But Tokyo’s governor, Yuriko Koike, has suggested that failure to contain the outbreak could affect the Games. “We must firmly tackle the new coronavirus to contain it, or we are going to regret it,” she said last week.

Demand for the 7.8m Olympics tickets is high, with applications exceeding supply by at least 10 times. About 4.5m tickets have been distributed domestically via a lottery.

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