ST. LOUIS ( -- The new virus from China has the world on edge because it’s a close cousin to viruses that killed hundreds in separate outbreaks. While it’s too early to tell if this latest threat will prove as deadly, health authorities are taking precautions to educate the public on the signs and symptoms, as well as how it travels.

"It can cause a significant respiratory infection. In a lot of patients and it could feel like a cold," said Dr. Hilary Babcock, an infectious disease specialist with Barnes Jewish Hospital. "In some patients it might progress to pneumonia."

The new virus, dubbed the "Novel coronavirus," comes from a large family of coronaviruses, some causing nothing worse than a cold. But in late 2002, a coronavirus named SARS erupted in southern China, causing a severe pneumonia that rapidly spread to other countries. It infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 -- and then it disappeared, thanks to public health measures.

In 2012, another coronavirus dubbed MERS began sickening people in Saudi Arabia. It’s still hanging around, causing small numbers of infections each year: The World Health Organization has counted nearly 2,500 cases of MERS in the Middle East and beyond, and more than 850 deaths.

So far, deaths from the Novel coronavirus total 26, a smaller fraction of the more than 850 confirmed infections, most of those cases in China.

According to the CDC, there are two confirmed cases in the United States; one in Washington state and one in Chicago.

The CDC is monitoring several other people with illnesses, but so far only two cases have been confirmed. 

Those who have died from the new strain already had weakened immune systems. The concern is the virus can go undetected during the two-week incubation period, and the commonplace nature of global travel can spread the virus all over the world. 

So far, at least nine countries have reported cases. 

"So you get exposed, you feel fine for two weeks, you're not passing it to anyone during that time, you're not a risk to anyone else," Babcock said. "But you might travel in that two weeks and then you might get sick somewhere else."

There are no cases being tested from the State of Missouri.

All testing for the Novel coronavirus is done at the federal level and local departments of health are notified when a test is requested.  

Hospitals have put up signs in emergency rooms to notify anyone who has traveled to China to seek a doctor if they are exhibiting symptoms. 

"Right now if someone has these symptoms the most likely thing they have is the flu and they should do whatever they should do if they thought they had influenza," Babcock said. "If you have been to China within the last two weeks and you come home and you have these symptoms start to develop then you should call your doctor."

People catch the coronavirus just like they do the flu, from exposure to droplets from an infected person's coughs or sneezes and from touching contaminated surfaces.

Just like with the flu, it's important for people who are sick to stay home and for all of us to wash our hands frequently.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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