Coronavirus Could Infect 2.5 Billion And Kill 50 Million.
From 50,000 infections and 1,000 deaths after a week to 208,000 infections and almost 4,400 deaths after two weeks, the numbers keep growing as each infected person infects others in turn.
In 30 days, the model says, two million could die. World health bosses have declared the illness, officially named Covid-19, “Public Enemy Number 1” as the death toll surpassed 1,110.
It comes as top Hong Kong medical official warned that the deadly virus could infect 60 per cent of the world’s population.
Professor Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine in the city, also said that even if the death rate sits at one per cent, it could still kill millions.
With the global population currently at more than seven billion, it means the new coronavirus could potentially infect more than four billion.
If one per cent of those people die, it would result in more than 45 million deaths.
However, World Health Organisation bosses have urged scientists to stop “throwing around figures that there is no basis for”.
It comes as the WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the epidemic poses a “very grave threat” to the entire globe.
He said: “To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack.
This is what Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, told The Guardian newspaper on 11 February. Is he right? The short answer is that no one knows, because there are many things we still don’t know about the virus.
First, can we stop it spreading globally? So far, there have been over 40,000 cases in China, and 24 other countries have reported around 300 cases. The virus is spreading much more readily than other coronaviruses that have jumped from animals into people.
Halting its spread requires identifying and isolating those who are infected. This could be especially difficult because some people might be infectious even when they have only mild symptoms. And while the average time from people being infected to showing symptoms is around three days, it might sometimes be as long as 24 days – more than the two-week quarantine period currently recommended.
China is taking drastic measures to contain the virus, but it isn’t clear if they are working. There has been a fall in the number of new cases reported per day, but this could be due to hospitals being overwhelmed. It also seems China is now not counting people who test positive for the virus but don’t show symptoms.
There is a good chance that wealthy countries could contain the trickle of cases currently being detected. The worry is that the virus is already spreading widely in countries that lack the resources to detect it.
The head of the World Health Organization has warned that we may only be seeing “the tip of the iceberg”. If so, the chances of preventing a global pandemic are low.
That brings us to the next question: how many people will be infected if the virus goes global? It has been estimated that 24 per cent of the world’s population was infected by the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, despite older people having pre-existing immunity because they had been exposed to similar viruses.
As far as we know, no one has any pre-existing immunity to the 2019 coronavirus. Each infected person also appears to be infecting two to four others on average, compared with 1.5 for flu. So Leung’s estimate of 60 per cent getting infected appears plausible, but we can’t say for certain.
“You can’t really gauge what’s going on with this,” says David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the global response to the SARS outbreak in 2003.
The severity of the virus is also key. Early estimates of the death rate from new diseases are typically much higher than the true figure, because only serious cases are detected. For instance, it is now thought the 2009 flu killed 1 in 5000 people, far fewer than first feared.
Experts said it was important the virus was given its own name because the term “coronavirus” refers to a wider family of viruses, including SARS and MERS.
During the WHO meeting in Geneva yesterday, Dr Tedros also revealed that the first vaccine targeting the illness could be available within 18 months.
Dr Tedros added: “We have to do everything today using the available weapons to fight this virus while preparing for the long term using the preparations for the vaccines.
“With 99 per cent of cases in China, this remains very much an emergency for that country, but one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world.”
THE new coronavirus is now spreading in several countries. As New Scientist went to press, eight cases of infection had been confirmed in the UK, including a man who went home to Brighton from a conference in Singapore via a ski resort in France.
Eight other people on the ski trip were diagnosed as infected after returning to the UK, including a doctor. The medical centre where the doctor works has now been shut. A further five people at the ski resort were diagnosed while still in France, and one other case was confirmed on return to Spain.
So is the rest of the world ready for the coronavirus? The short answer is no. “I am utterly convinced that no country is fully prepared,” says Jennifer Nuzzo at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland.
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Serious disease outbreaks pose three threats. There is the direct impact in terms of illness and deaths. Then there are people with other illnesses who are disadvantaged because health services are overwhelmed. For instance, regular vaccinations ceased during recent Ebola outbreaks in West Africa, leading to children dying of other diseases. Finally, there is the economic impact of travel bans and people not working.
Nuzzo is one of the authors of the Global Health Security Index, which scores countries out of 100 based on their ability to cope with these threats.
The average score in 2019 was just 40. China scored 48. The US, UK, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada top the ranking, with scores ranging from 84 to 75, but they too will struggle if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic and spreads globally, even if it isn’t especially deadly, says Nuzzo.
For now, the aim is to stop the coronavirus from spreading. The strategy is to identify people who are infected, quarantine them and trace their contacts in case any are infected too.
As long as the number of cases spreading beyond China remains a trickle, rich countries are well placed to do this. But many poorer countries don’t yet have the capacity to test for the virus.
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Hospitals in the US and the UK are preparing isolation facilities, and on Monday, the UK declared the virus an imminent threat, allowing the country to forcibly quarantine people.
There are concerns that some countries aren’t providing sufficient funding and training. “Bottom line: they aren’t taking this seriously enough,” US senator Chris Murphy tweeted last week after attending a briefing on the US government’s preparations.
Isolating all infected people in hospitals and tracing their contacts also works only if case numbers remain low. If case numbers rise, it doesn’t make sense to fill hospitals with people with mild infections who don’t need treatment.
At this point, the strategy would have to switch to asking people with mild cases to isolate themselves at home, and treating people who are seriously ill in communal wards.
“If coronavirus is worse than swine flu, it will be horrendously difficult to handle”
“In that case, we are in an epidemic situation,” says Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh, UK. “We won’t be able to control it, and it will have to run its course.”
Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia, UK, thinks a coronavirus pandemic would be no worse than the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. Efforts to contain this outbreak after it began in Mexico failed and it spread globally, infecting up to a quarter of the population and killing up to 500,000 – a death rate of approximately 0.02 per cent.
Nuzzo agrees it is plausible a coronavirus pandemic could be similar to swine flu, but says the US would be hard-pressed to manage even in this scenario.
However, there are reasons to think a coronavirus pandemic could be worse than the 2009 pandemic was. Infected people seem to pass the virus on to between two and four others on average, compared with about 1.5 for flu, says Woolhouse. There is also no pre-existing immunity against coronavirus, whereas older people had some against H1N1.
Woolhouse stresses that he isn’t predicting that a coronavirus pandemic will be worse than H1N1 was. “But we should at least think about what we would do in those circumstances,” he says.
The UK authorities have planned only for a pandemic similar to 2009. They are currently discussing whether a more severe outbreak is a reasonable concern, says Woolhouse.
“If it is worse than H1N1, then it would be horrendously difficult to handle,” says Hunter.
No one can say for sure what will happen. But Nuzzo thinks it is already too late to stop the virus going pandemic, and that China’s drastic measures to contain it will cause a lot of harm. “I’m really worried about the potential disruption that their measures will cause,” she says.
Nuzzo thinks efforts should focus on preparing communities to cope with the virus rather than trying to halt its spread.
NHS hospitals are being offered “uncapped” millions to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak – as Matt Hancock warned the epidemic will get “worse before it gets better”.
The cash is on offer to beef up measures against the killer infection, with all hospitals ordered to create isolation pods to treat potential victims away from other patients.
So far, 1,358 people in the UK have been tested for the virus, with eight cases confirmed.
The Health Secretary told the Commons the new money was being made immediately available “to support any urgent works the NHS needs for the coronavirus response”.
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