Shortcuts / 04 February 2020


What coronavirus actually is, where it came from, the broader implications, and how we stop the spread.

What is coronavirus?

The term is actually used for a group of viruses, ranging from the common cold to serious respiratory illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and now the new strain of virus, called 2019-nCoV.

Where do coronaviruses originate from?

Coronaviruses are commonly found in wild animals including mammals and birds, but transmission of the illness from animals to humans is very rare and it happens when the virus mutates. The prime conditions for a virus to mutate and intensify are when wild animals are packed together in crowded, unhygienic conditions.

Where did the new coronavirus originate?

Most of the viruses initial cases were found in workers or visitors to a fish market in Wuhan, China, where a number of wild animals were known to be sold. Scientists believe this outbreak started with bats, and was passed on to another animal that was sold at the market before being passed on to humans. After a mutated version of the virus was first passed on from an infected animal to people at the market, it then mutated again, spreading from human to human, eventually infecting people who didn’t pick it up at the market.

How bad is the new coronavirus?

Experts are saying this strain of coronavirus is “more infectious” but less severe than the SARS epidemic of 2002-03 – and by less serious, they mean the mortality rate of this coronavirus is lower. SARS saw 8,098 reported cases and 774 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation, which means the virus killed roughly 10% of those who were infected. By comparison, this coronavirus has recorded a 1% or 2% mortality rate to date. But there’s other measures of how serious it could be, like the impact on the global economy, and that remains to be seen.

What is China doing to address the outbreak?

The first case of the new coronavirus in a human was detected back on 12 December, 2019, but it wasn’t until the 31 December that health authorities in Wuhan announced they were investigating 27 cases of what they thought at the time was a SARS-related viral pneumonia and notified the World Health Organisation. China’s President Xi Jinping says responding to this is the country’s top priority at the moment. China has banned the sale of wildlife across the country. And China has put the 56 million people living in 20 cities around Wuhan in lockdown by blocking roads and stopping flights and trains in and out of the region. That’s to help stop the spread of the virus. And they’re being very efficient in a way only a country with a population over a billion can, by building two new hospitals in a matter of days.

Can we trust the information China is providing?

Initially experts were very sceptical about the numbers coming out of China, and there’s a lot of memories from what happened during the SARS outbreak when China was far from transparent. But during this crisis, it seems as time has gone on and the scale has increased, there’s a sense that they have become more transparent about it. The WHO has broadly praised China’s handling of it. But there are still sceptics out there.

Who is WHO and what role does it play in this outbreak?

The WHO is a United Nations agency that is concerned with international public health. With outbreaks of disease and infection, like this one, they have the ability to call a global emergency, which means it can put into place “a coordinated international response”, including measures to control the global spread of the virus via steps like limiting travel and screening at airports.

How is the rest of the world handling this crisis?

One of the first things that started happening when coronavirus started to become an international threat was the screening of anyone travelling from the region. The US and Australia were two of the first nations to start screening people coming off flights from Wuhan. And then it was from flights from mainland China. That’s done via a non-contact thermometer to detect fever, officials looking for passengers who have a cough or shortness of breath, and travellers are asked to complete a questionnaire on their symptoms, travel and contact information. But for people who have symptoms, they are being put into isolation for 2 weeks. The trick is that doctors have found that coronavirus can be transmitted before a patient has symptoms. This is something that many nations are having to manage with many cases confirmed outside of China. As the number of infected people has grown more and more, drastic steps have been taken, with many airlines suspending flights in and out of mainland China, And then for many countries, they have a responsibility to their citizens who are stuck in the Hubei province, and so many are sending in chartered jets to evacuate them. Permission to do that is in the hands of Chinese officials. The US, UK, Germany, Spain, India, France, New Zealand, Japan, and Turkey are all countries that have or will evacuate their citizens if possible. Then there are companies such as McDonalds and Starbucks, who have shut down their locations in the region and across China more broadly.

What are the economic and social implications of an epidemic like this?

Markets work on confidence and certainty and something like this new coronavirus outbreak, particularly at this scale and in this region, really knocks confidence. It’s yet to be seen what the impact will be, but certainly for nations like ours that have high numbers of tourists from China, or do a lot of business with them, there will be an impact. And with viral outbreaks like this, we often see social problems such as racism. There have been examples of anti-Chinese sentiment, particularly on social media.

What is being done to what is being done find a vaccine for this virus?

Finding an effective test is important, because it means you don’t have to quarantine people unnecessarily, and it helps stressed health services cope better. And then there’s the race for a vaccine. Chinese officials released the virus’ genetic code very quickly. That information helps scientists determine where the virus probably came from, how it might mutate as the outbreak develops, and how to protect people against it. And in fact an Aussie lab was the first outside of China to copy the virus, which is a big step towards developing a vaccine.

How long could that take, and what happens to those infected in the meantime?

It will probably be 12 months from the outbreak to having a vaccine – and that’s if everything goes right in the research and testing. In the meantime, until there is a reliable test, people with symptoms will have to go into quarantine.

So when are those that are infected and in quarantine free to head back out into the world?

If you’ve had it and you recover, and you’re no longer contagious, you’re good to go. That’s happened with a couple of Aussie cases within a couple of weeks from confirmation to release in a couple of weeks.

How do the medical professionals working with patients ensure they don’t become infected?

Hospitals and health facilities generally have strict infectious disease protocols. But in China there have already been a couple of examples of hospital workers who contracted the virus and died. But that was in the early days of the outbreak.

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