Virus toll rises as 14 are tested in Britain

Airtime: Even some TV presenters in China are wearing masks. © China Times

Is this a global pandemic? In China, there are more than 830 confirmed cases and 25 deaths – with further reports from Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US.

More than a dozen people in Britain have been tested for a deadly virus sweeping out of China. Five, so far, have been confirmed as negative, but the NHS is under orders to question everyone with flu-like symptoms in an attempt to stop spread of the virus.

Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, has warned it is likely that cases of coronavirus will be seen in Britain as part of a “rapidly developing” global outbreak, in which more than 26 million people have been quarantined in what could be the largest disease-control operation in history.

The World Health Organisation said last night that cases in other countries were likely, as its experts were divided over whether to declare a global emergency. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, its director general, said that a quarter of those infected had become severely ill and most of the dead had underlying health problems.

“We know that this virus can cause severe disease – and that it can kill – although for most people it causes milder symptoms,” he said. “We don’t know the source of this virus, we don’t understand how easily it spreads and we don’t fully understand its clinical features or severity.”

In China, the outbreak continued to spread rapidly, with the National Health Commission confirming 830 cases and 25 deaths.

Authorities grounded flights, put up road blocks and closed railway stations to prevent residents leaving Wuhan. Restrictions were imposed on seven further cities.

The virus, named 2019-nCoV, is part of the wider family of coronaviruses, so named because they look as though they wear a crown of proteins. Two similar pathogens have caused scares in the past: Sars and Mers.

Why are these viruses so dangerous?

Firstly, they are new. This means that our bodies have not evolved to defend themselves from such infections. And though the new virus has already had its genome sequenced, it will take time to develop and test any potential vaccine.

The pathogen’s architecture is also to blame, coded by a single strand of RNA. Their genetic material has no backup copy, so any mutations are more likely to be reproduced. One animal’s virus can quickly evolve into something that can spread across species.

The world is more at risk of such viruses because of our increasingly dense population, our tendency to travel and our warmer planet, which allows viruses to survive in the air for longer.

A decade ago, while researching a book on the next human pandemic, science writer David Quammen was told that the next deadly global disease would be a virus, with a single-strand of RNA that came from an animal in a live market in a Chinese city.

That is exactly what the world is facing today.

So, are we dealing with a global pandemic?

Going viral

No. It is nowhere near as devastating as it could be. The virus seems to mostly affect those over the age of 60, or those who were already unwell. We have also seen similar panics before, such as Ebola and Swine Flu. As frightening as those were, they never reached pandemic levels.

Yes. Thousands more people are likely to be infected without yet knowing it. If we do not call the outbreak a pandemic, then we risk a much worse catastrophe. In the best case scenario, we will see this as a fire drill. So let’s make sure we know where the exits are. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

You Decide

  1. How scared are you by the Chinese coronavirus? What new information would reassure you the most?
  2. Is it possible to maintain public safety without causing panic? Which would you compromise if you were a government official?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are writing a letter to a family member who is stuck in Wuhan, China. Do your best to reassure and empathise with them.
  2. Do some research on how viruses work and spread between people. Illustrate the process like a comic strip in three squares.

Some People Say...

“Air, I should explain, becomes wind when it is agitated.”

Lucretius (99-55 BC), Roman poet and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
2019-nCoV can be spread from human to human. Symptoms initially include coughing, having a fever and difficulty breathing. There is no vaccine as yet.
What do we not know?
How long the virus takes to incubate inside someone’s body. We, therefore, do not know how many people could potentially be infected. Because of these unknowns, we do not really know how dangerous the infection is.

Word Watch

Virus
A small infectious agent that reproduces by reprogramming living cells.
Quarantined
A place of isolation in which people or animals that have been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed.
World Health Organisation
A specialised agency of the United Nations that is concerned with international public health. It was established on 7 April 1948, and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
Wuhan
The capital of Hubei province, China. It is the largest city in Hubei, with a population of 11 million – larger than London (9 million).
Pathogens
A bacteria or virus that can cause disease.
Sars
Severe acute respiratory syndrome, a coronavirus which broke out in China in 2003, killing 9% of those it infected.
Mers
Middle East respiratory syndrome, a coronavirus which first appeared in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
RNA
Ribonucleic acid is a molecule that is essential in the coding and regulation of genes.
Mutations
A potentially harmful change that is the result of error in genetic code.
Pandemic
A disease that breaks out across a huge area or even worldwide.
Live market
Market where live animals are for sale. In China, wild meat is seen as better-tasting than packaged supermarket cuts.

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