Provisionally, ‘2019nCoV’ seems much less deadly than SARS. Within China, the mortality rate is running at about 2.3 per cent of the 40,195 infected; the two who died out of 378 cases abroad represent a rate of only 0.5 per cent, though small figures are more likely to be statistically misleading. However, as the business site Quartz warns, it’s too early for complacency: during the 2003 SARS epidemic the World Health Organisation (WHO) initially estimated a fatality rate of around 3 per cent, which later had to be revised to almost three times higher. Remember, 89 per cent of coronavirus cases have so far neither died nor recovered.
Still, only two deaths have happened outside mainland China. It would be nice to reassure ourselves that ‘it can’t happen here’ and there is a suggestion that some ethnic groups may be more susceptible. Russia Insider cites a Chinese scientific study on the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic which suggested that ethnicity might be one of the factors determining vulnerability to the H1N1 virus; and a new piece of research has tentatively (awaiting peer review) indicated that the alveoli (air sacs in the lungs) of ‘Asian males’ have more receptors to which 2019nCoV can bind, so making those people more likely to succumb.
However, there may be other and possibly more significant predictors. A paper in The Lancet on January 30, looking at 99 ‘Wu flu’ patients in Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, noted that they tended to be older (average age 55 years) and predominantly (two-thirds) male; half of the sufferers had existing chronic illnesses. The risk pattern resembled that for viral pneumonia generally, and as with the latter, smoking may be a factor (52 per cent of Chinese men smoke; the proportion among women is only 3 per cent but they are often exposed to second-hand smoke). Anybody here fit the profile?
The spread into the rest of the world is in its early days. The symptom-free incubation period is said to be about two weeks and although it’s currently thought that the virus can’t be passed on during this stage, we are still learning. Besides, when exactly does one move into the infectious stage? Charles Hugh Smith, who was predicting a pandemic a week ago, repeated his warning on Sunday, suggesting that governments are concerned to pretend for the sake of economic stability that everything is under control. In that context, it seems both understandable and yet near-insane that the WHO should urge that travel restrictions not be imposed.
Smith’s article gives reasons to disbelieve official assurances. It’s also worth noting that part of the Chinese strategy for containment was to extend the Lunar New Year holiday to February 10 in many areas, so what happens now the great back-to-work has begun? Many people must be desperate to start earning again and so they have an incentive to ignore a ‘bit of a sniffle’.
Even if the fatality rate is indeed relatively low, the rate at which infection can spread appears to be high, so that a small percentage of a large number could result in a high victim count. In this country we have very good medical facilities but even the best could be overwhelmed by demand, as happened in Wuhan. The UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is therefore right to label the risk to Britain as ‘serious and imminent’ – a declaration that empowers him to use force if necessary to prevent individuals absconding from 14-day quarantine, as one of them was reportedly threatening to do.
A stitch in time . . . if the crisis got out of hand stringent measures would need to be employed. There are allegations that the quarantine effort in China extends to welding sufferers’ house doors shut and herding others into guarded camps with inadequate medical care to stop the viral wildfire spreading. One Twitter user claims that a Hubei woman was shot dead while trying to get through a protective blockade. What would we do?
Let’s do whatever we can not to have to find out.