The coronavirus has killed at least 2,801 people, the majority of whom were at the outbreak’s epicentre in Wuhan City, China. The first case of coronavirus was detected in Wuhan last December and was originally traced to a busy seafood market.

Viral experts have since said the novel coronavirus strain likely came from an animal source, suggesting the virus could have been carried by bats before infecting humans.

Dr Aneta Afelt, an epidemiologist from the University of Warsaw in Poland, believes the destruction of natural habitats may have kickstarted the epidemic.

She said: “This is because local, natural ecosystems in which animals have vegetated so far are being destroyed.

“The effect of this is the recirculation of zoonotic pathogens that spread to humans and are spread around the world as a result of global trade and tourism”.

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The coronavirus family of viruses is zoonotic, meaning the pathogen can spread between animals and humans.

Bats are a likely culprit for the epidemic and have been responsible for at least two past coronavirus outbreaks.

Between 2002 and 2003, bats and Asian civet cats were behind the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.

Then in 2012, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is also believed to have originated in bats.

In the case of the novel coronavirus, officially dubbed SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen was most likely spread from bats to other wild and domesticated animals and then humans.

But Dr Afelt argued researchers need to also consider the possibility humans contracted the virus directly from the winged critters.

Natural ecosystems in which animals have vegetated so far are being destroyed

Dr Aneta Afelt, University of Warsaw

She said: “Bats in many regions have been pushed out of their environments, for example, as a result of deforestation, and have begun to use other places and conditions built by humans.

“At the same time, different species of bats that have never been in contact under natural conditions, have begun to neighbour one another.

“This, in turn, is conducive to the exchange of pathogens between different individuals and the evolution of viruses.”

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What are the symptoms of a coronavirus infection? What does COVID-19 look like?

Coronaviruses are known to attack the respiratory system by inducing a range of flu-like symptoms before deteriorating into pneumonia.

Initial symptoms can include fever, dry cough and shortness of breath, which can be mistaken for the common cold or flu.

If the coronavirus disease is left untreated, it can develop into pneumonia and kidney failure.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), symptoms are typically mild and begin gradually.

The WHO said: “The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough.

“Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea.”

In some cases, patients may become infected but not show any outward signs of infections.

The WHO estimates about one out of six people will become seriously ill and the elderly and people with underlying medical problems are most at risk of death.

Current estimates show COVID-19 has a mortality rate of about two percent.

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