Coronavirus: are we at the beginning of a major pandemic?
The origin of the current coronavirus epidemic has been linked to illegally traded wildlife at Wuhan’s ‘wet’ seafood market, which sells live animals including bats, rabbits and marmots. However, the exact source of the outbreak has not been identified, although it has been suggested that pangolins, one of the most trafficked animals in the world and sometimes consumed in China, may have been an intermediary.
The basic reproductive number for the illness is estimated at 2.2, meaning that on average each sufferer will infect more than two other people. The viruses’s potential to spread while the patient is asymptomatic is very worrying as its mean the incubation period is five days. When symptoms do appear they include fever, cough, and shortness of breath leading (in some cases) to acute respiratory distress and bilateral pneumonia. Men who have or do smoke, or suffer from underlying chronic condition appear to be most susceptible.
At the time of writing, coronavirus has killed 813 people, with all but two victims in mainland China: one death occurred in the Philippines and another in Hong Kong. So far, the 2019-nCoV coronavirus epidemic has affected 24 countries. According to a cruise ship spokesperson, confirmed cases on a cruise ship in Japan rose by six to 70, making the vessel the biggest centre of infection outside of China.
Reported cases in China alone have now climbed to 37 198, less than two months after the virus surfaced in late December in Wuhan. The Government there has sent more than 11 900 medical workers to Hubei province to fight the epidemic and built new hospitals with quite extraordinary celerity.
Over eight months, the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, killed 774 people and badly afflicted almost 8100 others in 26 countries. Mainland China accounted for about 45% of SARS deaths.
The World Health Organization has warned of a chronic shortage of gowns, masks, gloves and other protective equipment in the fight against the spreading epidemic.
A British man on board a cruise ship has been diagnosed with the coronavirus and is now hospitalised. Another patient has tested positive for coronavirus in England, bringing the total number of UK cases to eight, the chief medical officer has said. In Europe, five Britons, including a nine-year-old child, who were staying in a chalet at a French ski resort, have been diagnosed with coronavirus. They tested positive after sharing lodgings with a man who is believed to have contracted the disease in Singapore, said France’s health ministry. Singapore has just confirmed seven new cases, pushing its total to 40.
Anyone returning in the past fortnight from the Far East who has symptoms like a cough, fever, or shortness of breath should stay indoors and call the NHS 111 service. The Department of Health said they should do so ‘even if symptoms are mild’, adding: ‘In addition to China, a number of countries higher risk, including Singapore, a major stopover location for flights to Australia, have been identified because of the volume of air travel from affected areas, understanding of other travel routes and number of reported cases.’
The situation seems to be deteriorating rather rapidly. Are we on at the start of a major pandemic? What further steps should the authorities in the UK and elsewhere be taking?