IT’S not about how the infection started, but how it can be stopped, and what happens if it can’t. A study says that the Wuhan virus is around three times more contagious than influenza: on average, each person infects 4.1 others. Mathematically, if this cycle were repeated 17 times, it would cover the whole population of the planet. Hawaii-based Charles Hugh Smith, a writer at the Mises Institute, offers reasons for thinking that a pandemic is virtually inevitable and that, because of the globalised economy, it could trigger a world economic depression.
How lethal is it? It’s too early to say: yesterday at 06:23 the tracker at Johns Hopkins University said there were 24,551 cases (99 per cent in China) and that so far 910 people have recovered while 493 have died. If it’s like SARS, the mortality rate will be under 10 per cent, possibly far lower. However, in Hubei province, where the outbreak began, 520 have recovered and 479 have died (most of the total fatalities to date). The New York Times reports that Wuhan residents blame the high toll there on the fact that many sufferers have been turned away by overstretched clinics; hence the frantic hospital-building programme.
Can we protect ourselves? The demand for face masks is so high that rogue traders are offering dud copies and some people are using whatever they can find to cover their mouths and noses. Yet scientists suggest even a proper mask offers limited protection: viruses are far smaller than bacteria – in the case of coronaviruses, about one-eighth the size – so they may slip through the fibre barrier. Having said that, a paper published in Nature three years ago says that coating the mask in salt greatly improves its filtering power; if that really does work, it offers a quick and cheap improvement – though we must remember that the virus can also be transmitted by contact with infected surfaces, or float into the eyes. Other than that, we’re left with the usual precautions – quarantine, reducing public interaction to a minimum, regular cleaning of hands and so on.
So far the 2019-nCoV virus has infected three times as many people as SARS, and has killed more on the Chinese mainland, although a smaller proportion of cases than SARS have been fatal. The real threat is not the mortality rate but the potentially much greater number of cases than SARS, attributable not only to its higher infectivity combined with the longer asymptomatic incubation period that fosters unwitting transmission by carriers, but also the initial cover-up and delay in Wuhan. One would have thought that the lesson of 2002-3 was to act quickly and decisively to contain the epidemic. On the other hand, if it had begun in a Manhattan street market just as the population was gathering to celebrate Thanksgiving, would the Mayor of New York have had the nerve – and the capacity – to lock down the whole city for weeks? We may yet find out, of course.
The economic effects are already beginning to manifest themselves. The New York Times reports that the virus-preventive shutdown of Chinese parts suppliers is hitting Hyundai car plants in South Korea. The Los Angeles Times notes that the US has become far more linked to China since the disruption caused by SARS: ‘China’s economy today is 8½ times larger than it was in 2003. Trade with the US is nearly four times bigger.’ American computer manufacturers are running out of circuit boards; middle-class Chinese tourism, already affected by the trade war, will drop further, as will sales of luxury goods to those visitors. The UK could be similarly afflicted.
We’d better make sure that our borders are an effective firebreak in the fight against this disease, and render every assistance we can to the Chinese to facilitate a return to the normality on which we have all come to depend.