China shuts down as new virus goes global

Trapped: At least 10 people on board a cruiser in the Japanese port of Yokohama have tested positive.

Can the coronavirus be contained? As the number of infected rises, the world is racing to isolate the disease and prevent a global pandemic. But some experts believe it is already too late.

Borders closed, roads blocked, flights cancelled. As of 6:00am, 28,000 people are now infected including a new born baby.

The biggest operation in history to contain an infectious disease is happening right now in Hubei province, in central China. Over 50 million people are quarantined, banned from leaving the region. Foreign countries are flying their citizens out, monitoring them closely for symptoms of the deadly coronavirus. And the news inside Hubei is of crowded hospitals and shortages of medical supplies.

It is a scary picture. The deserted streets and shops look like something out of a zombie apocalypse. But is it as bad as it looks? We now have more data about the virus and epidemiology can help us separate the facts from the panic.

Two numbers help us understand what is happening. The first is the case mortality rate. This tells us what percentage of the people infected will die. WHO currently estimates the virus is killing 2.1% of those with the virus, mostly the elderly and people with other health problems. That is much higher than, say, flu (less than 0.1%), but it is nowhere near as deadly as the Sars outbreak of 2003 (9.5%).

The second number is the infection rate. How many people does each person infect, on average? It may be as low as 1.4 people, but Chinese scientists think it could be as high as 5.5. Much less contagious than measles (12 to 18 people), but much more than Sars.

One more piece of the puzzle: the virus takes up to two weeks to incubate in the body before you begin to feel ill. This is why the Chinese government has quarantined millions of healthy people in Hubei.

The problem, argues expert Jeremy Konyndyk, is “the horse has probably already left the barn”. With more cases reported outside China, it is too late to contain the virus. The focus should be on finding a cure. And containment may make things worse, says public health expert Vageesh Jain. “A quarantine of this scale will create more problems than it solves.” Shutting down whole cities will cause food shortages, spread panic, and make treating people harder.

However, China is taking no chances. With months before we develop a cure, expect to hear a lot more about quarantines and containing the disease.

But can it be contained?

Stick or twist

Yes, because it has to be. There really isn’t a choice for any responsible government. Firstly, even if containment reduces the spread by as little as 10% or 5%, it is still worth it. Secondly, the idea is to buy time while scientists rush to try and develop a vaccine. That surely is a worthy aim. Thirdly, it is easier to focus medical resources on fewer areas. Building a new 1,000-bed hospital in 10 days in the epicentre of the outbreak was exactly the right thing to do.

No, we would be better to face the facts. The virus cannot now be fenced in. Quarantine only works with smaller numbers. If it sounds a bit heartless to reduce an epidemic to maths, that misunderstands the power of numbers. Numbers help us to see what is going on. In fact, they are encouraging, for they show that, like any virus, this one will eventually peak and then fall away. And next time it strikes, humanity will be ready with a vaccine.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever received a chain letter? Do you think a virus spreads in a similar way?
  2. Which do you think is more important: finding a cure or containing the spread of the virus?

Activities

  1. You’re going into quarantine with your family. List five things you will take with you.
  2. Your town is to be quarantined and you are in charge of informing the public. In threes, prepare a public service announcement about the plan. Remember that you have to impart useful information but not create panic.

Some People Say...

“Only one form of contagion travels faster than a virus. And that’s fear.”

Dan Brown, American novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that an epidemic follows a recognised pattern. The number of cases initially increases exponentially (very fast) until the proportion of susceptible people (who could still catch the disease) starts dropping in relation to the number of immune people (who’ve had the disease and have recovered, or who’ve had a vaccine). At a certain point, the rate of cases drops – eventually leading to extinction of the infection.
What do we not know?
Most crucially, there is much disagreement about how best to hasten the death of a virus. One way is to let the virus spread freely. Parents used to take their children to “measles parties” in order for them to catch the disease early and become immune. It depends how deadly a virus really is and how fast it spreads. We are still guessing at the variables that will determine when the new coronavirus will peak and how many total deaths that will involve.

Word Watch

Quarantined
Isolating the infected from the general population is probably the oldest technique for managing an epidemic. It’s mentioned in the Bible to stop leprosy and was used in the 14th Century against the Black Death.
Coronavirus
Also known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, or Wuhan coronavirus, this is an infectious disease that was probably transmitted to humans from bats at a live food market in the city of Wuhan last December.
Epidemiology
The science of disease, how it spreads, and how it can be controlled.
Case mortality rate
The number of deaths in a population. Compare these figures to malaria (over 200 million cases each year and 400,000 deaths) and tuberculosis (10 million cases and 1.3 million deaths).
WHO
The World Health Organisation is the branch of the United Nations responsible for international public health.
Sars
Severe acute respiratory syndrome was another form of coronavirus that developed in 2002-2003 in southern China. It infected 8,098 people in 17 countries and the final death toll was 774.
Infection rate
The average number of people infected by one case.
Epicentre
Right in the middle.

Subjects

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