Coronavirus is being presented as some plague likely to devastate a big proportion of the world’s population – some kind of Ebola 2.0.
This article explains everything about the coronavirus, from what its origins are, what it itself is, how we can cure it and more.
What is the pathogen in Wuhan?
It is a novel coronavirus – a member of the coronavirus family that has never been seen before. Like other coronaviruses, it is derived from animals.
Many of the infected people often worked or shopped at the seafood wholesale market in Huanan in the centre of the Chinese city, where live and newly slaughtered animals were also sold.
New and worrying viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and influenza are examples.
What other coronaviruses have already existed?
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses originating from animals.
Although Mers is thought to be transmitted from dromedaries to humans, the original hosts for both coronaviruses were probably bats.
In 2002, Sars spread virtually uncontrolled to 37 countries and caused a worldwide panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750.
Mers appears to be less easily transmitted from person to person, but has a higher mortality rate, killing 35% of the approximately 2,500 infected people.
Which symptoms are caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?
The virus causes pneumonia. Those who get it are reported to suffer from cough, fever and difficulty breathing. In severe cases, organ failure may occur.
Since it’s viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have for the flu will not work. When people are admitted to hospital, they can get support for their lungs and other organs in addition to fluids.
Recovery depends on the strength of their immune system. Many of the deceased are known to be already in poor health.
Is the virus transmitted from one person to another?
Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed by the National Health Commission of China. As of January 30, the number of deaths in China was 170, with 7,711 cases of infection confirmed.
Last week, the number of confirmed infections more than tripled, with cases reported in 13 provinces and in the municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin.
The virus has also been confirmed outside China, in Hong Kong, Macao, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
There are currently 2 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom in Newcastle and nearly all of the 70 people tested for the virus have all been found negative.
The actual number of people infected with the virus could be much higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected.
Modelling by WHO experts at Imperial College London suggests that there could be up to 100,000 cases, with uncertainties ranging from 30,000 to 200,000.
How worried are the experts on the matter?
There were fears that the coronavirus could continue to spread during the week-long New Year’s lunar New Year’s holiday, which began on January 24th and sees millions of Chinese travelling home, but the celebrations have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are trapped.
At the moment it seems that people with poor health are the most at risk, as is always the case with flu. A major concern is the range of severity of the symptoms – some people seem to be only mildly ill, while others are seriously ill.
This makes it more difficult to determine the actual number of people infected and the extent of transmission between people. However, the authorities are anxious to stop the spread and fear that the virus could become stronger than it appears at present.
When should you consider going to a doctor?
If you have not recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, you should treat cough or cold symptoms as usual.
The British Nation Health Service (NHS) generally advises you not to see a doctor if you have a cough unless he or she is persistent or you have other symptoms such as chest pain, breathing difficulties or are feeling very unwell.
Why is this worse than a normal flu?
We do not yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is – and we will not know until more data is available. Eighty-one deaths from 2,827 reported cases would mean a mortality rate of 3%.
However, this is probably an overestimation, because there may be a much larger pool of people who are infected with the virus but have not experienced severe enough symptoms to go to the hospital and have therefore not been counted in the data.
For comparison, seasonal flu usually has a mortality rate of less than 1% and is expected to cause about 400,000 deaths worldwide each year. Sars had a mortality rate of more than 10%.
Another important unknown that scientists should have a clearer picture of in the coming weeks is the risk of coronavirus infection. A key difference is that, unlike influenza, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means that vulnerable groups – the elderly or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – find it more difficult to protect themselves.
It is important to wash your hands and stay away from people if you feel unwell. A sensible step is to obtain the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on public health services if the outbreak becomes a major epidemic.
Should we panic?
No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying, but not unexpected. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organisation will declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
The key questions are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion of them fall seriously ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder effect.
Healthcare workers could be at risk if they unexpectedly come across someone with respiratory symptoms who has travelled to an affected region. In general, coronavirus appears to hit older people hardest, with few cases occurring in children.