Foxconn, the electronics company that supplies Apple, has begun manufacturing its own surgical masks, allowing Chinese workers to churn out iPhones uninterrupted as the coronavirus crisis continues.

The Taiwanese company’s production lines have been shut down because of the disruption caused by the outbreak, slowing down the supply chain that feeds Apple’s global retail network.

However, in a statement released via the Chinese social media platform WeChat, Foxconn said it hoped to get around the problem by switching some of its own production lines to make masks, for its own staff and to supply the soaring global demand for them.

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.

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. 

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.

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 7 February, the death toll stands at 636 inside China, one in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. Infections inside China stand at 31,161 and global infections have passed 280 in 28 countries. The mortality rate is 2%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, and a third person was diagnosed with it in Brighton, 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.

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%.

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.

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 

It hopes to increase production to 2m masks by the end of the month.

“In this war against the epidemic, every second counts,” the company said.

“The earlier we take precautionary actions, the earlier we can prevent the virus, the earlier we can save lives, the sooner we can overcome this.”

Foxconn, which has previously come under scrutiny over poor conditions endured by workers making iPhones, said it had already begun a test run of masks at its main manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, southern China.

They will initially be produced for internal use by its hundreds of thousands of employees, the majority of whom work in factories in mainland China.

After that, it will begin supplying masks to the wider public, from whom soaring demand has caused shortages as people trying to protect themselves from the virus.

Several other Chinese companies have said they will divert some of their production capacity to mask-making. They include the clothing firm Hongdou Group and the carmaker SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile Co Ltd, a joint-venture automaker formed by General Motors and two Chinese partners.

The outbreak, which began in Wuhan, Hubei province, has claimed 636 lives in mainland China and infected more than 30,000 people.

A number of multinational companies have said they expect significant disruption to their supply chains or their Chinese sales, while economists have predicted the virus will reduce output in China and nearby countries such as Thailand, which relies heavily on tourism from the country.

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