Coronavirus: when should we panic?

Without a vaccine to counteract the killer virus and the fact that the disease spreads before the host feels any symptoms, reality is fast turning into what feels like a horror movie. So how worried should we be? What do you need to know about Coronavirus as the first few confirmed cases hit Europe? Tannice Hemming finds out.

A few days ago I read, worriedly, about a Chinese woman who had decided to defy the authorities on her flight to France and took medications to reduce her temperature. As a mum, I’m always wound up by parents taking their sick children out to soft play areas or other places where viruses multiply and then infect my children. We’re all currently afflicted with a nasty cold – snotty noses, sore throats and dry coughs. Yet imagine being the one to infect an entire country?

The origin of Coronavirus

This outbreak of Coronavirus, closely related to the common cold, seems to have originated in wild animals in China. 

According to Professor Woolhouse, Infectious Disease Epidemiology expert at the University of Edinburgh, the fact that it originates from that part of the world is unsurprising. He told the BBX that the close proximity of humans and wild animals in the country, coupled with the fact it has a very high population makes it an ideal candidate for the spread of an epidemic. 

Though not as severe as SARS, which killed almost 800 of the over 8000 infected in an outbreak in 2003. About 25% of those who are infected with Coronavirus have died so far. 

The World Health Organisation have not yet classified the outbreak of Coronavirus as an international public health emergency but are currently considering whether to. They did so most recently with swine flu and Ebola. 

How many have died?

Many have remained sceptical about the true extent of the fatalities caused by Coronavirus. The official death toll is 106 as of today, Tuesday 28 January 2020. However, some newspapers are carrying far, far higher death tolls in the thousands. The Daily Mail reported one account, supposedly from a nurse in China saying that 90,000 people have died. The amount of confirmed infected cases are now more than 4,500. 

What are the authorities doing to control the infection?

Chinese officials are promising tougher crackdowns to control the spread of the virus. Currently, Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have crossed from wild animals to humans, is in complete lockdown. The public transport system is at a standstill and 11 million residents are banned from leaving the city. The hospitals there are totally overwhelmed. Hainan province has also stopped inter-province bus travel. 

What are the symptoms?

Rarely causing a runny nose or sneezing (that means my household is safe), the virus starts with a fever and then those afflicted have a dry cough. The most severely affected will then experience breathing difficulties which is when hospital treatment is usually required. 

What if it mutates?

Professor Jonathan Ball, an expert on viruses for the University of Nottingham told the BBC “We should be worried about any virus that explores humans for the first time, because it’s overcome the first major barrier.

“Once inside a [human] cell and replicating, it can start to generate mutations that could allow it to spread more efficiently and become more dangerous. You don’t want to give the virus the opportunity.”

What are experts particularly concerned about?

Scientific American yesterday published an article warning that if the virus cannot be contained, the spread will be sustained globally. They warned that the action that China is taking, that they dubbed ‘draconian’, may not “be enough to stop the virus”.

Neil Ferguson, epidemiologist for Imperial College London suggested to The Guardian newspaper that the infection rate in China was around 100,000.

Seattle-based Trevor Bedford is a computational biologist and has been working on models to calculate the ‘reproductive rate’ of the virus. That’s currently higher than 1 – so for everyone who is infected, they infect more than 1 more. They estimate the true reproductive rate of the virus to be 2 or even 3. Especially given that the virus shows no symptoms during the period that you can transmit it to others. The WHO has a more conservative R number of 1.4 to 2.5. 

Ed Yong has more on the interpretation of the R0 (R-nought) number and what it means on the Atlantic.

What about UK Citizens in China?

According to the Guardian, final plans to airlift UK citizens currently in China are being made. There are telephone hotlines available for those who wish to be evacuated – good news for many Britons in China who have so far been disappointed by the UK response. Contrasting the UK government unfavourably with other nations’ far more rapid and thought-out airlift plans, many are very unhappy with the lack of communication. Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport told Sky News “Not everybody wants to be repatriated but we are working on arrangements with other international colleagues to do that.”

How do I protect myself if it comes to my country?

Conspiracy theories about Coronavirus have already propagated faster than the virus itself. From suspicions that the virus is a bioweapon that originated from a Wuhan virology lab to videos showing dead people in hospital corridors, there’s no end of panic a few tweets away. 

Panic won’t help us as much as good hygiene and staying away from others who are ill. Sadly, there’s not much more than that anyone can do to protect themselves from the viruses if it presents near you. The Center for Disease Control in the USA, where there are currently a few cases, recommends regular hand washing, avoiding touching your eyes, mouth or nose with unwashed hands and, unsurprisingly, avoiding contact with anyone who’s unwell. 

So don’t even dare take little sniffly Johnny to the Jungle Gym this weekend. You won’t be forgiven if you give my kid any lurgy, whether it’s Coronavirus or just the common cold.

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