The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to sound a global health emergency in January, has affected over 34,000 people worldwide and cut short the lives of over 720 so far.
The respiratory infection, which is now more widespread than the 2002-03 severe respiratory acute syndrome (SARS) in terms of number of people affected, originated in China. The first known human infection, likely originated from a single infected animal, in early December 2019. It was detected in Wuhan, a city in the Hubei province, in mid-December 2019. The 2019-nCoV subsequently engulfed the whole of China and in no time spread its tentacles to other countries across the world.
While the outbreak is spreading all over rapidly, Chinese health authorities are working on determining the origin of the virus. They claim that the virus could have spread from a seafood market in Wuhan, though without any conclusive evidence. The WHO also says an animal source appears most likely to be the primary source of the outbreak.
How Deadly Is It?
According to some experts, the novel coronavirus outbreak may not be as deadly when compared with earlier coronavirus outbreaks like SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). While SARS killed close to 800 people – 300 in China alone – MERS, which did not spread widely, killed about one-third of those who got affected (858 deaths of 2,494 people affected).
The number of people tested positive for the 2019 n-CoV, around the world and the number of deaths related to it so far suggest a fatality rate of 2%, which is considered to be on the higher side for a respiratory virus. However, the number of infected individuals, who may not have been diagnosed, is likely to be much higher, suggesting that the fatality rate could be well below 2%.
In layman terms, viruses cannot be deadly and can go undetected. A deadly virus typically has a more complex and severe list of symptoms, including a sudden onset and a higher chance of death. This causes patients to report to hospitals at earlier stages of the infection, creating a panic situation in medical facilities due to the high number of infected individuals with severe symptoms in very little time. According to several experts, though infections like these are difficult to detect and control, they are fortunately less lethal.
Will measures like airport screenings and isolation of infected individuals contain the epidemic of n-CoV? At this early stage, there seems to be no definite answer. With few historical references to look back on, clarity is far from certain. Results could in about a month’s time establish and only then will it be clear if the measures being taken by most cities were any worth.
As of now, it appears that the infected individuals can transmit the virus even before having the symptoms of it. On one hand, quarantining infected individuals and keeping them in isolation slows down the epidemic, while on the other, there is a huge risk of those at a pre-symptomatic stage going undetected.
China’s Mass Quarantine
Removal of the suspected source from the disease-hit area is mandatory but not sufficient. Chinese officials did take the necessary steps and shut the Wuhan wet-market, from where the virus is said to have “originated”. The next step China had to take was to contain the epidemic. In order to do so, Wuhan’s public health authorities cordoned the ground zero, by shutting public transport and other services claiming to be in a “state of war”.
While isolation of individuals is a common practice during public health emergencies, quarantining millions of healthy people is unprecedented. Despite the mild severity of this disease, over 50 million people in Hubei Province have been restricted to their region as Chinese authorities try to prevent the spread of the virus.
Looking at it from the outside, one may welcome China’s move of quarantining millions of people. But it is a mere delusion to assume that one person’s risk of infection is the same as another’s because they live in the same region. To isolate those who have any theoretical risk of disease is more about allaying fear among public, though in reality, the severity of the disease is a lot milder.
Assuming that less than 1% of Wuhan’s 11 million population is infected with the virus, we could say that 99% of the people are not positive cases of the virus. With the right public healthcare response, the majority of the people who are affected by n-CoV would be highly unlikely to contract the disease.
Such mass quarantines have not only led to crowded hospitals and panic but are also resulting in shortage of food and supplies, dip in local economies and among all major risks, creating scope for new health problems for those who are not affected.
Death of a Whistle-blower
Is he dead? Is he not? Li Wenliang, the doctor who warned the medical community about severe pneumonia cases in December and was reprimanded by Wuhan authorities for that warning, has “reportedly” died of the coronavirus. His death was initially reported by China’s state-run paper, Global Times, then retracted, leading to mass confusion.
After the news of Li’s death initially broke on Wednesday in Beijing, the public — that considered him a whistle-blower and a hero — mourned his death and directed their ire at Chinese authorities. Adding to the confusion, several Chinese media outlets reported that Li was, in fact, still alive. China’s National Supervisory Commission, the country’s top anti-corruption agency, announced in a statement that it would send a team to Wuhan to investigate his death.
However, the hospital in which he worked and was admitted, in an official statement, said: “Our hospital’s ophthalmologist Li Wenliang was unfortunately infected with coronavirus during his work in the fight against the coronavirus epidemic. He died at 2:58 am on Feb 7 after attempts to resuscitate were unsuccessful.”
Is it lab-grown?
Suspicions are being raised globally over the origins of the n-CoV. Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer who has studied Chinese bio warfare, alleged that the advanced virus research laboratory, known as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is behind the “accidental” leak of the lethal virus. The institute, linked to Beijing’s covert biological weapons programme, is the only declared site in China capable of working with deadly viruses.
A scientific paper by a group of Chinese researchers, published in the medical journal ‘The Lancet’ argued that the first 13 of 41 patients affected by the virus had no contacts with the seafood market at all in early December. Another conspiracy theory doing the rounds is whether the Chinese Communist Party leaked the virus on purpose as a desperate attempt to stay in power.
Meanwhile, China has slammed Israel’s recent claim that the lethal new nCoV originated from the leaked biological warfare lab. Chinese researchers are now busy concentrating their efforts in developing vaccines to contain the epidemic. While we may not know the truth about the origins of the 2019-nCoV, some forward thinking on the why and frequency of such virus attacks must be done on a war footing.
Certain laboratories in the institute (Wuhan Institute of Virology) have probably been engaged, in terms of research and development, in Chinese (biological weapons), at least collaterally, yet not as a principal facility of the Chinese BW alignment
Dany Shoham, former Israeli military intelligence officer
Understanding the disease, its reservoirs, transmission and clinical severity and then developing effective counter-measures is critical for the control of the outbreak, to reduce deaths and minimize the economic impact
Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist
A Heavy Toll
Number of people infected: 8,100
Death percentage: 9.5%
Countries Affected: 27
Number of people infected: 2,494
Death Percentage: 34.5%
Countries Affected: 27
No of people infected so far: 34,000
Deaths so far: 722
On Your Guard
- Majority of those affected by 2019-nCoV have had fever, pneumonia, shortness of breath
- Some others have claimed muscleache, headache and sore throat
- One is at a risk of contracting the virus only with direct contact with someone who is already affected.