IMPORTANT NOTE: if you’re looking for up-to-date information on the coronavirus, the best place to go is the World Health Organization’s website on the virus, or your local health authority.
There’s no two ways about it: the thought of a global pandemic is a scary thing. It’s the sort of scenario that has people appearing on Doomsday Preppers dressed in camo, trying in vain to commando-roll with the seventeen guns strapped to their back. All throughout history, we have feared the outbreak of disease, and our globalized world has only made that fear worse.
So it makes sense that, after hearing that a new coronavirus — a type of virus that infects humans and animals — has been identified in an outbreak in China, we all immediately push on the panic button. Stories have been abounding about the imminent peril to the world that this new virus represents, with people already buying up medical supplies and barricading themselves away across the world.
But while this virus is definitely a serious public health concern — if nothing else, it has already killed 132 people — the current worldwide panic might be a bit unrealistic.
Disease is terrifying, but the reality is a bit less scary than you might’ve heard.
Viral outbreaks are nothing new. You might remember the recent scare over Zika, which is still plaguing many areas of the world. Ebola is a problem that comes up every few years, partly because it’s a nasty infection, and partly because the parts of the world that it tends to spring up in are tumultuous and rarely have the resources to properly contain outbreaks.
Coronaviruses are a big family, and cause everything from deadly respiratory infections to the common cold, which means that an outbreak isn’t that scary per se. What makes this one more worrisome than most is the fact that it appears to be novel — i.e. it’s never infected people before — and it’s spreading fast. Over the last week, the number of cases of NCoV19 (Novel CoronaVirus 2019) has gone from a mere 282 to more than 7,700, and the death count has gone from a handful to dozens in the same time. Every day, another headline comes out saying that the numbers are doubling, tripling, or quadrupling, which only stokes the swift undercurrent of terror.
But while these figures sound scary, it’s worth thinking about the scale of the problem, particularly if you aren’t living in China.
There’s a good chance that the viral outbreak won’t affect you much after all.
The first thing to say is that, despite the hype around the figures, the coronavirus isn’t even close to being as deadly as some previous outbreaks. Way back in 2003, SARS killed nearly 15% of all the people it infected, which was part of the reason it was such a worry at the time. Based on preliminary figures, this new coronavirus appears to have a case-fatality rate — the ratio of deaths to cases of disease — of about 2–4%, which is less than a third of SARS and significantly lower than MERS as well.
It’s also worth noting that this is probably an overestimate, because at the moment only the most severe cases — people who are really sick — are being identified as having the disease. Once testing becomes more widespread, it’s possible that the case-fatality rate will go down significantly.
Another thing to think about is the global perspective. The WHO hasn’t yet declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern for NCoV19**, which is probably because the disease isn’t really spreading outside of China yet. While there have been cases of disease in many different countries, so far more than 98% of the cases come from China, and most of the few that are infected internationally visited Wuhan recently. Even within China, the number of cases is not that high so far — remember, the city at the centre of this outbreak, Wuhan, houses 11 million people.
Realistically, unless you live in Hubei province in China, your risk of meeting someone who is infected with this virus is vanishingly small.
And right now, the experts agree. that Despite the global panic, with quarantine measures and evacuations abounding, the WHO is currently not advising any country to cancel travel to and from China. This is partially because travel bans are notoriously ineffective at preventing the spread of disease, but it’s also because thus far infections outside of the country of origin aren’t running wild.
Running for the hills is definitely a bit premature.
What everyone wants to know is what they can do in this fast-paced outbreak. Do you stockpile supplies? Should you bar your doors to anyone sneezing? Would drinking bleach help*?
The first thing that I’d advise is to take a deep breath, and embrace the uncertainty.
We may not know for a while what the impact of this virus will be. Estimates of the number of people range from the fairly realistic tens of thousands to the fairly implausible tens of millions. While the case-fatality rate is currently not inconsiderable, it might be much lower — or much higher. It’s hard to say.
The best advice is to keep an eye on the news, and keep in mind that even the experts aren’t sure what’s going to happen next. In the meantime, the World Health Organization has some very good practical tips for the general public that everyone can understand and do themselves:
- Frequently clean hands
- When coughing and sneezing cover mouth and nose
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough
- If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing seek medical care
- When visiting live markets avoid contact with live animals
- Avoid consuming raw or undercooked meat
That’s it. Commonsense tips that can help prevent you from being infected, and can stop you from preventing others. Notice that it doesn’t say get a face mask — the best evidence is that, for non-medical people, face masks aren’t actually very good at preventing the spread of infection.
Stay informed about the emerging coronavirus. I know I will.
Just try not to panic.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast for your weekly dose of scientific shenanigans and media muddling:
**Note: Since this blog was initially published, the WHO has declared a PHEIC. However, the increase in the number of cases of coronavirus appears to be slowing down significantly as well, so the main point here still stands.