Since China first announced the emergence of a new virus, 2019-novel coronavirus or 2019-nCOV, the pathogen has spread and international cases have emerged. This virus is in the same family as both the common cold and the more deadly MERS and SARS viruses. Governments and health organisations are now mobilising to contain the spread of the virus, hoping to avoid a repeat of the 2003 SARS epidemic.
The state of the outbreak so far
2019-nCOV originated in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in China’s Hubei Province. China reported the first case on January 7. Since then, there have been around 4500 confirmed cases and 106 confirmed deaths (at the time of this article’s writing). Within three weeks the virus has spread globally, with three cases each in France and five in the US, and several in multiple East Asian countries bringing the total up to 47 cases outside China. Transport to and from Wuhan has been halted, and airports have put screening processes into place. As of January 28, the WHO does not classify the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). The spread of the virus is deemed controllable.
Parallels to SARS
However, fears persist about the 2019-nCOV outbreak leading to a crisis similar to the 2003 SARS epidemic. Here, a related viral strain had jumped from bats to humans, causing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). SARS is highly virulent and killed over 700 people across 32 countries. With 40 as the median age of death it did not only target the old and vulnerable. An international effort contained the virus, and no new cases have emerged since 2004.
There are similarities between 2019-nCoV and SARs. Both are zoonotic, passing from an animal host to a human one, though the transmitting species is not yet known. It is thought that 2019-nCoV originated in an animal market or at least spread through it. Animals in markets are stressed and more likely to shed viruses. While the market where the coronavirus is thought to have originated has since been shut down, others remain. This poses a public health risk which needs to be addressed.
Further, scientists have been unable to develop a vaccine for any coronavirus strain, whether SARS or the common cold, and will likely struggle to do so for 2019-nCOV as well. As such, control of the epidemic must primarily occur through screening and containment procedures.
How do we contain the virus?
Screening at airports involves checking for fever and asking travelers to report cold- or flu-like symptoms. Anyone with a fever higher than 100 Fahrenheit is pulled aside for additional health checks. These can include precise genetics tests for the virus, as outlined by the United States Center for Disease Control on 24th of January. Should they be infected, they will be quarantined and treated in a similar fashion to flu treatments.
Currently, 25% of diagnosed coronavirus cases are considered to be ‘severe’ and in need of serious medical treatment. However, the virulence of 2019-nCOV is unknown. Non-severe symptoms are identical to the common cold, and in some patients the infection may go unnoticed.
What happens next?
This is currently a developing situation. The infection is spreading, and growing international coordination is necessary to contain the outbreak. However, the WHO recommends that anyone outside of the Wuhan area should “practice usual precautions”, indicating the lowest level of concern.
Sources & further reading