Experts are warning that the Wuhan coronavirus (2019 nCoV) is now likely to become a pandemic that circles the globe, as cases continue to rise at an alarming rate.
In spite of the Chinese government’s best efforts to contain the virus, it has gone international, with more than 62,000 cases reported worldwide already, although the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes the real number of infections to be much greater as the virus infects others before the initial victim begins to show symptoms.
At the time of publication, the virus has already claimed more than 1,500 lives, and experts believe the death toll will continue to rise as more become infected over the coming months.
“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” said Dr Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
A pandemic — an ongoing epidemic on two or more continents —
may well have global consequences, despite the extraordinary travel restrictions and quarantines now imposed by China and other countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The Wuhan coronavirus is spreading more like influenza, which is highly transmissible, than like its slow-moving viral cousins, SARS and MERS, scientists have found.
The biggest uncertainty now, experts say, is how many people around the world will die as to date there has yet to be a vaccine created to counter this biological threat to the world’s population.
SARS killed about 10 per cent of those who got it, and MERS now kills about one of three.
The 1918 “Spanish flu” killed only about 2.5 per cent of its victims, in the end between 20 to 50 million died, experts believe this virus kills around two per cent of people who become infected.
It is “increasingly unlikely that the virus can be contained,” said Dr Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now runs Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit devoted to fighting epidemics.
“It is therefore likely that it will spread, as flu and other organisms do, but we still don’t know how deadly it will be.”
Closing borders to highly infectious pathogens never succeeds completely, experts say, because all frontiers are somewhat porous.
Other important unknowns include who is most at risk, whether coughing or contaminated surfaces are more likely to transmit the virus, how fast the virus can mutate and whether it will fade out when the weather warms.
The WHO’s primary concern is the virus’s potential to spread unhindered in low and middle-income countries. Australia is able to contain the virus in the short term at least, but that is not the case in the poor but globally connected mega-cities of Asia and Africa.
Authorities in countries like India, which is investigating suspected cases, has significantly less central control than China and its health system is rickety at best. The potential for run-away outbreaks in India and countries like it is therefore much greater.
India’s ability to contain an epidemic is far less than that of China.
Its scientific infrastructure is less advanced and extensive, its ability to quarantine a large number of people non-existent, its hospitals ill-equipped to treat large armies of sick people.
The only advantage is the knowledge of the Chinese experience, which India can use to limit the spread of the disease.
India has already mandated a ban on the export of personal protection equipment such as masks and clothing.
It has not yet given a reason for the ban, however, experts believe it could be due to the Indian government’s fears of an epidemic within its borders.
India is the world’s second most heavily populated country after China and one of the world’s major transit hubs.
Experts say it is hard to tell just how many people will be affected across the planet, and urge everyone to practice good personal hygiene in order to help protect themselves from the coronavirus.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are similar to a common cold. They include:
Coronavirus is an airborne virus, spread in a similar way to colds and the flu. It is incredibly contagious and is spread through infected breath, coughs or sneezes. This means that anyone who is infected can pass it on to any person they breathe on or touch. Japan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, US, Germany, Vietnam, France, UAE, Canada, Italy, UK, India, Philippines, Russia, Cambodia, Finland, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Spain and Sweden have all reported cases.
By Ane Byres