Judging the gravity of the outbreak | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 27, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 10:20 PM, January 27, 2020

Judging the gravity of the outbreak

  • The symptoms are hard to differentiate from viral flu, making detection of it harder
  • The mortality rate of new coronavirus is less than 5 percent compared to 9.5 percent of SARS and 34.5 percent of MERS 
  • The incubation rate for the new virus is thought to be a maximum of two weeks.


How serious is the coronavirus outbreak? What are its symptoms and how contagious is it? Experts studying the new virus, still have key questions to answer before they can assess its danger.

As of Sunday, nearly 2,000 cases have been confirmed in China, its country of origin, of which 56 have been fatal. Several cases have been detected in Asian countries, as well as a few in Australia, France, Canada and the United States.

So far, no-one outside China has died. We know how many people have died from the virus, but not the true numbers infected.

2019-nCoV, as it has been named, is part of the coronavirus virus family, the source of two previous fatal epidemics.

The 2002/03 SARS outbreak (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) started in Beijing and killed 774 people out of a total 8,096 infected. The 2012 MERS outbreak (Middle East respiratory syndrome) killed 858 people out of the 2,494 infected.

So those outbreaks had significantly different mortality rates of 9.5 percent and 34.5 percent respectively. For the moment, the mortality rate of the new coronavirus is less than five percent.

Chinese scientists reported in The Lancet Friday that, based on a study of 41 early-detected cases, some of the new virus’s symptoms resemble those of SARS. All patients had pneumonia, most had a fever, three-quarters of them were coughing and more than half had trouble breathing.

Despite this, lead author Bin Lao added: “there are some important differences”, such a no runny noses, sneezing or sore throats. Nor did the new virus cause stomach problems such as diarrhoea, which hit 20-25 percent of SARS patients. The average age of the 41 patients studied was 49.

All this gives us a preliminary sketch of the new virus, even if one has to be cautious about drawing conclusions based on such a small sample. The study is all the more important because a current epidemic of flu, which has similar symptoms, has made isolating patients of the new virus difficult.

The incubation rate for the new virus is thought to be a maximum of two weeks.

Researchers think the new virus probably came from bats, as the SARS virus did, with which it shares 80 percent of its genetic makeup.

But we still don’t know which animal passed it on to humans. On Wednesday, a Chinese team suggested it could be a snake, but that was immediately challenged by other experts, who think a mammal is the more likely culprit.

Identifying which animal it was could help fight the outbreak.

Precautions: Health authorities and scientists say the same precautions against other viral illnesses can be used: wash your hands frequently, cover up your coughs, try not to touch your face. And anyone who does come down with the virus should be placed in isolation.


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