Medical staff in protective outfits as a precaution during a previous Coronavirus outbreak in China
Medical staff in protective outfits as a precautions of potential Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronavirus outbreak is seen at the Kwong Wah Hospital in Yau Ma Tei. 02JUN15

Cheat sheet: Should we be freaking out about the mysterious virus in China?

A strange pneumonia-causing virus has broken out in China, and the number of cases is rising rapidly. How worried should we be? 

What’s all this then?

Like Sars, swine flu and ebola before it, a new virus is hitting the headlines. The outbreak of a new type of coronavirus is centred around Wuhan in China, a sprawling city with a population of more than 11 million, with the outbreak believed to have started in a fish market. So far it’s estimated that there have been more than 200 cases, including a few picked up in other major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and three confirmed deaths as a result.

Two hundred cases doesn’t seem like many for a country the size of China.

It isn’t, as a proportion of the total population. But there are some major concerns around the current spread of the Wuhan virus. The first is that China’s National Health Commission has confirmed that human to human transmission has occurred, which means it can spread much more easily among populations, and is a worrying escalation. The second is that it has now been spotted in Beijing and Shanghai, which are both cities with major international travel links, as well as individual cases in Japan, South Korea and two in Thailand. And the third concern is that hundreds of millions of people in China are about to get on the move this week ahead of Lunar New Year. The logistics of that travel, which occurs on a genuinely massive scale, could cause serious problems given the close person to person contact involved.

Tell us more about this virus – is it treatable? 

The Wuhan Virus, which has the much less catchy scientific name of 2019-nCoV, is known to cause pneumonia, so could be deadly. It is likely to have first passed to humans from animals. There isn’t a specific treatment for it at this stage, but last week the World Health Organisation suggested that existing anti-virals may be able to be repurposed to fight it. They’ve warned hospitals around the world to get ready in case it arrives. Symptoms are similar to the flu, and include respiratory issues, a fever, coughing, shortness of breath, breathing difficulties and even lung disease.

Yikes. But don’t we get virus scares like this all the time, and then they turn out to be nothing?

It’s true that there have been panics around viruses before, with apocalyptic punditry and predictions around how devastating they could be, before turning out to be easily containable. But there are a few reasons to not take outbreaks like this lightly. The first is that they’re genuinely deadly and dangerous in the countries they hit hardest. For example, some wondered if panic about ebola was overblown because an exceedingly small number of cases ever turned up in the western world – however, literally hundreds of people died of it in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and their deaths are no less important than those in any other country. As well as that, previous virus outbreaks are very poor predictors of what the effects of future outbreaks will be, given that each new strain is effectively unique.

What’s more, as Siouxsie Wiles noted on RNZ, the widespread publicity around flu flare-ups is part of why they can be quelled early on.

But we have had situations like this before?

Yes, and previous experiences help inform how to manage this one. Otago University Professor of Public Health Michael Baker said there are methods that always come in handy with new viruses.

“The Sars pandemic in 2002-03 illustrates these points. It was also a newly detected coronavirus transmitted from an animal reservoir that infected humans. It caused severe respiratory illness with 8,098 reported cases and a fatality risk approaching 10% (774 deaths). It was highly infectious with a reproduction number of 2-4 resulting in rapid spread to case contacts, particularly in hospital settings. In the end, it was found to be highly controllable with simple measures, notably case detection, isolation and quarantine of contacts.”

Those are measures that require quite a bit of urgency – is this being treated as an emergency?

The World Health Organisation has scrambled into action, and a WHO panel will convene in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss whether to declare “a public health emergency of international concern”. According to the Straits Times, that’s a technical term that indicates the severity of the problem and the necessity of a coordinated international response, and only gets deployed sparingly.

I’m worried I’ve got this virus.

If you’re reading this right now, you almost certainly don’t have the virus. But even so, there’s no harm in avoiding close contact with people suffering cold or flu-like symptoms – even if they don’t have this particular virus, they might still have something you don’t want.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.