COVID-19 News in Brief Science World

Coronavirus outbreak: analysed

Written by Callum Murison

Note: all statistics are correct as of 21:00 on Friday 6th March 2020.

COVID-19 has now dominated the news for months. Cases are spiralling – with more than 160 cases now reported in the UK alone. But 2 months after the first cases were reported, how has the situation changed?

The death rate is higher than initially suggested

Initially, it was thought that the death toll from COVID-19 was somewhere around 1-2%. The problem is, despite the recorded deaths being very accurate, it is extremely likely that there will be people who have contracted the virus and have gone undetected – mostly due to making a quick recovery from mild symptoms. This would result in an over-estimation of the death rate. Presently, the death rate in China (where the outbreak began) is 3.78%, whilst in Italy (the main European hotspot thus far) it is noticeably higher at 4.25%. Meanwhile, Iran and South Korea have also reported a large number of cases over the past month. However, it still appears like the majority of deaths are in the older population or amongst those with pre-existing medical conditions. This would explain the higher death rate in Italy, which has an older population than China.

But whilst the death rate may be slightly higher, it is the spread of the virus which is the most concerning. Yesterday, both Italy and Iran reported a huge spike – with Iran’s total cases rising over 35% and Italy reporting almost 800 new cases. Here in the UK, after almost 50 new cases yesterday, the UK’s chief medical adviser suggested that “health officials are moving towards the [delay] stage” with regards to the outbreak.

A vaccine is still months away – at least

A fact is that vaccines take time to develop. During the SARS outbreak of 2002-03, it took around 20 months before the vaccine was ready to be tested on humans. With technology having advanced considerably in the 17 years since then, the time taken to develop the vaccine and have it ready for testing in people should be shorter. However, despite prototype vaccines being well into development, the WHO reported last month that they believed that it could still be as long as 18 months before the first vaccine is publicly available (due to all necessary testing). So, until then, the focus needs to be on hygiene (such as washing hands thoroughly and regularly if possible and, if not, using anti-bacterial hand gel instead), and avoiding unnecessary contact which could result in a faster spread of the virus.

How does it compare to the ‘original’ SARS?

As has been reported, ‘coronavirus’ refers to a family of related viruses rather than the specific outbreak. The specific disease is called COVID-19, whereas the virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 – so called because of the aforementioned ‘original’ SARS-CoV outbreak of 2002-03. Back then, there were over 8000 known cases across 33 countries – a small fraction of the over-100,000 cases across 97 countries reported so far. But the fatality rate back then was higher: around 10%. In both cases, the virus is believed to have originated from an animal reservoir and then spread across the species barrier to humans.

Coronavirus is beginning to spread – and spread fast – but it is worth keeping a sense of reason here. New cases in China, where the situation two weeks ago was grim, appear to be slowing and, hopefully, the spread of the virus will begin to tail off in the worst parts soon. Panic buying and petty theft, as is (unbelievably) occurring in some places, is not going to help anybody. Calmness, and awareness, will.

About the author

Callum Murison

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