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What is coronavirus and what impact will it have?

By Hugh Wilson

Investors dump travel and tourism-related shares as a new virus emerges from the same family as SARS

Stocks across Asia and Europe have fallen as markets weighed the prospect of a coronavirus pandemic hitting the global economy.

Airline, travel and luxury goods brands with exposure to China were hardest hit in early trading, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng, China’s SSEC and London’s FTSE 100 all well in the red at 10am GMT.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause pneumonia and the common cold, along with a range of diseases in animals as well as the SARS virus that caused deaths and disruption in the early 2000s and is estimated to have cut one or two per cent from China's GDP.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. The most recent virus was discovered in Wuhan Province, China on the last day of 2019, and there have now been cases as far afield as Japan and Thailand.

How serious is it?

Reuters reports that Chinese officials have confirmed the virus can spread person-to-person, heightening fears of mass global infections.

Between four and six people are believed to have died so far with 300 infected - though sources differ on the exact numbers. The WHO will meet on Wednesday January 22 in Geneva to decide whether to declare an international public health emergency.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. The infection can also cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

The spread of the virus could be aided by extended Chinese New Year celebrations that start on Saturday, with millions travelling domestically and internationally to be with family and attend events.

Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected, has already cancelled its Lunar New Year celebrations.

Why are investors worried?

Investors are fearful of a repeat of the SARS crisis in 2003 that killed 800 people and cost the global economy tens of billions of dollars. SARS was also caused by a coronavirus, though indications so far suggest the current strain is less potent.

Researchers at the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University calculated that SARS had cost the Chinese economy $25.3bn (£19.3bn, €22.8bn) and cut 1 to 2 per cent from the country’s gross domestic product.

What sectors might be affected this time?

The value of companies in the travel, airline and luxury goods space have been hit by the news. Not only could a coronavirus outbreak prevent people travelling, but it could hit Chinese consumption, which is particularly important for many luxury goods companies, which have a large percentage of their customers in Japan.

There is a silver lining for companies like this, though. Analysts say that economic harm could be mitigated by the wide scale presence of online commerce, something that wasn’t available in 2003. People shopping from their homes could also slow the spread of the virus.

FURTHER READING: US-China phase one trade agreement signed in Washington

FURTHER READING: Is Chinese New Year the time to buy Bitcoin?

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