Often put in the same camp with the 2013 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the recent Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreaks, the recent Wuhan coronavirus is on course to wreak havoc globally with thousands infected and hundreds dead.
We’ve just shared some tips to protect yourself from the virus itself and the concomitant flurry of misinformation and fearmongering, but it’s worthwhile to arm yourself with a better understanding of the outbreak put our efforts to best use. After all, knowledge is power, and Sun Tse exhorted us to know our enemy.
In this article, we shed light some of the most important questions … you might have not thought to ask: what’s a coronavirus? Should we be as fearful of nCoV as we were during SARS? Shouldn’t face masks be mandatory? Was it caused by snake or bat soup?
We try our best to condense coverage, research, and breaking news in this compact explainer.
What’s a Coronavirus?
While recent outbreaks of strains of coronaviruses have labels like SARS and MERS, no official nomenclature has been issued for the Wuhan flu as of yet. Media and other official sources have thus referred to it as 2019-nCoV, or the “novel coronavirus” – meaning a new coronavirus.
Why “coronavirus”? Hold your beer jokes – in Latin, corona means crown or halo – referring to the ring-like structure that can be seen when the virus is magnified with an electron microscope.
How do you kill it?
Rather obvious from its nomenclature, the novel coronavirus is … a virus. While some bacterial strains are difficult, viruses are arguably trickier to treat than bacteria, due them being impervious to our doctors’ greatest tool: antibiotics.
They aren’t strictly living things because of a whole list of characteristics (or lack thereof), especially the fact that they can’t reproduce independently. However, they replicate using specific metabolic pathways in their hosts. Thus, one of the leading methods to deal with viral outbreaks is through antiviral drugs that interfere with the replication process. Vaccines, like the flu jabs we took when we were much younger, also work.
Polio, measles, mumps and smallpox are some viral diseases that have been largely eradicated in most parts of the world with the use of regimented vaccination programmes.
Is It Similar To SARS and MERS?
Although SARS and MERS are also caused by coronaviruses, coronaviruses are also responsible for a considerable proportion of common colds amongst humans. Most notably, infections caused by coronaviruses can lead to pneumonia and bronchitis both directly as a symptom and indirectly due to a suppressed immune system.
In 2003, the highly-publicised outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused some 774 deaths in 17 countries, with a fatality rate of about 9.6% out of the 8,096 total reported cases. The disease, which began in Guangdong province in China, was traced back genetically to animal origins – through palm civets via cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in China.
SARS presents with flu-like symptoms including a high fever above 38°C (100°F), muscle pains, lethargy, cough, a sore throat, and can culminate in pneumonia. It is highly virulent, with a R0 (average direct transmission rate of each patient) of 2 to 4.
It has an incubation period of 4-6 days, but can be as short as 1 or as long as 14 days.
MERS is similarly derived from bats, and is believed to be transmitted to humans via camels. It is significantly less virulent than SARS, but has manifested in two major outbreaks in Saudi Arabia (2012) and South Korea (2015). In total, it had infected about 2,000 individuals with a mortality rate of about a third of all diagnosed cases.
Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and muscle pain.
At time of writing (30 Jan 2020), the Wuhan Coronavirus has been confirmed in 7,783 cases – of which 7,678 are confined to Mainland China. Thailand (14), Japan (11), Hong Kong (10) and Singapore (10) follow. In total, 170 deaths have been reported, all of which have occured in China. While some have reported that 2019-nCoV is less lethal than SARS, it is likely that mortality rates might change as respiratory complications like pneumonia and bronchitis set in.
However, China’s quick response in sealing up the city of Wuhan and surrounding towns, relative to the alleged cover-up that severely delayed the response during the 2003 SARS outbreak, might also improve the survival rate. A moratorium on Chinese tour travel began on Monday (27 Jan 2020) and will affect tourist industries that are highly dependent on Chinese tourism but would likely prevent the runaway spread of the disease in other countries.
In Singapore, 10 confirmed cases of the Wuhan Coronavirus all originated from Wuhan, and are all Chinese nationals. A poor implementation of the quarantine on the affected regions in China had led to about 5 million Wuhan residents fleeing, many to other Chinese locations for the Lunar New Year, but many others headed abroad to destinations like Thailand and Singapore. 9 million residents remain in Wuhan.
Do Masks Help?
Short answer: yes, but hand-washing is more important.
Most face masks can not filter the virus itself per se, but instead serve to block droplets and particles carrying the virus and other germs from coming in contact with our vulnerable facial (read: mucous membrane-lined) orifices.
The risk of infection lowers significantly with consistent, proper usage of masks. That includes proper wearing (coloured side out, pulled to cover nose and chin, and wire pressed down on the nose bridge to create a seal) along with proper etiquette (not reaching under the mask to scratch, not removing the mask during a phone call, and not touching the outside surface of the mask).
Hand washing should be observed regularly – with soap, and for longer than 20 seconds. Individuals should also be careful with their hands – especially with it comes to nail-biting, nose-prodding and eye-rubbing. Our hands come into contact with lift buttons, door handles and other common surfaces that can harbour deadly germs.
Masks can be a useful tool for personal safety, but when weighed against the propensity for individuals to wear them incorrectly, they can be rendered ineffective. Many governments are calling for citizens to ease off mask consumption.
Singapore has announced that 5.2 million masks will be distributed to 1.37 million households come 1 February in a press briefing by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.
During the briefing, Minister Wong noted that the current rate of face mask consumption in Singapore is “unsustainable”, and called for residents to use them responsibly. Stockpiles should be prioritised for “front-line” healthcare workers and for those who are already unwell – those who are well do not need to wear masks.
The masks are intended for members of the household that fall sick and “really need […] it”.
Minister Wong implored Singaporeans not to use the masks “right away”, saying, “as far as medical experts have said, there’s no need to. Use it only if you are unwell, and have to go out to see the doctor.”
Is Bat Soup The Culprit?
The 2019 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is caused by the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Although initially linked to the Huanan Seafood Market, evidence now seems to point away from this theory.
Videos circulating showing Chinese people tucking into exotic wildlife have certainly stirred fears and prejudices regarding Chinese culpability in “causing” another transmission of a virulent animal-borne disease to humans.
It seems like the close proximity of wildlife and humans is the most likely cause of the coronavirus, and bats are exposed to higher levels of scrutiny following the discovery of the root cause of the SARS and MERS outbreaks.
Did bat soup cause the Wuhan Flu? It’s still a mystery, but this theory now seems unlikely. Close proximity to live animals and other live wildlife in markets like the Huanan Seafood Market, the suspected epicentre of the viral outbreak, might be the root cause.
Will This Outbreak Be Just Like SARS?
Of particular concern is the rapid spread of the disease in terms of confirmed infections within China alone – nearly catching up to SARS in its months-long course within the span of two months.
A patchwork of reports, both optimistic and pessimistic, originating from within the Great Firewall to be circulated by international media paints a much more complicated picture of conditions within the epicentre of the quarantined epicentre of Wuhan.
Shortages of food, protective equipment and hospital beds, juxtaposed against audacious claims that the government will build two 1,000-plus bed facilities within six and ten days.
The deadliness of the Wuhan Coronavirus can only be determined in due course, along with its virulence outside of China.