opinion

The new Coronavirus is still being understood.

Some facts stand out to me. From those infections that are diagnosed as Coronavirus, there is a 2% mortality rate. This is a lot better than SARS (10%) and MERS (30%), to give two recent examples.

Some media have compared it to the flu and said the flu is a lot worse. If you look at the figures, you realise this is rubbish. For example, in the USA, in one of the most lethal recent seasons, 2014/5, the flu mortality rate was 0.35% (there were 14 million diagnoses, half a million hospitalisations, 50 thousand deaths). Killing six times as many people is not significantly better.

Having said that, sensible people and vulnerable people will have been vaccinated against the flu. Flu vaccines are not particularly effective, so some vaccinated people get the disease, but, even so, the number of infections would probably be twice that without vaccination.

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The Chinese are making an intense effort to contain the disease. They’ve locked down a number of cities, restricted travel, extended holidays, quickly built new hospitals, among many other activities. Had they not done so, the disease would have spread far more rapidly and far further than it has done so already. Excepting their initial response, they’ve been exemplary.

But, even so, the new disease has spread beyond China. Many other countries are seeing a few cases, and are reacting quickly and severely to control the spread of the disease there.

I think all this effort will slow down the spread of the disease, but I don’t think it’ll stop it. It does seem reasonably clear that people can get the virus, and infect others, without realising it. Witness the latest British case, a guy who was unknowingly infected in Singapore, who, as soon as he found out he was at risk, isolated himself and told the authorities, but whom, between infection and discovery, infected some people in France.

It’s not all doom and gloom: slowing down the disease is very important. First of all, it allows everyone to get prepared for when it does arrive: hospitals and emergency services ramp up, specialist products are manufactured in bulk, institutions get ready, well–run businesses organise for trouble, governments prepare the population, people stock up, etc.. Secondly, it gives the medical researchers time to find a treatment (potential treatments are being tested China and Thailand, among other places) before the disease becomes a pandemic, so saving more lives when it does. Finally, it allows time for a vaccine to be developed, controlling the disease in future cold seasons.

There is probably a race between the new Coronavirus and the northern hemisphere spring. These types of virus tend to spread in colder weather, and start to be naturally contained as the weather warms up. The flu season is autumn and winter, although cases may be seen as late as May. The new Coronavirus, another respiratory disease, spreads in a similar way, so is likely to be contained by changing seasons too. Will spring arrive here before the virus becomes a serious pandemic? Whether and when this happens is going to be a nervous wait and see. Incidentally, I expect at least one of those drugs trials to get a positive result before the new Coronavirus can take advantage of the southern hemisphere winter.

So the impact of the new disease risks being akin to a nasty flu seasons should antivaxers, or some other force of evil, hold sway. This is serious: it’s comparable to the 1918/19 flu, which killed 2.5% of those infected. Fortunately for us, the Chinese effort to contain the disease gives researchers time to develop cures and vaccines, and we’ve a century of medical science progress to call upon since that terrible 1918/19 pandemic.

So you’ll understand why I intend to get prepared for the arrival of the disease.