I’ve been seeing a lot of news about the new Wuhan coronavirus, currently named 2019-nCoV, and there are multiple extreme opinions that keep being thrown in my face that need to be confronted. The other day a friend on Facebook posted a “myth vs. fact sheet” put together by an idiot (my friend posts things like this to get discussion going, so it’s not like he bought into it) that said some utterly ridiculous things. So let’s talk about this virus.
Up front: I am not an epidemiologist, doctor, biologist, or anything of the kind. I’m an armchair science watcher who knows what to look for in a BS story and knows how to take news about this sort of thing with a huge pinch of salt. This is the salt. I’m also not going to link to a bunch of sources because honestly I can’t be bothered, but you should be able to find the same info I’m working with.
The first reported case of 2019-nCoV happened in December, but there’s current research suggesting it likely began in November and many cases went overlooked or unreported. Unfortunately China likes to pretend things are great until they aren’t, and their tendency to sweep issues like this under the rug has already made things a lot worse. Scientists believe the virus originated in a marketplace where many live animals were bought and sold. While this was believed to come from snakes originally, genetic sequencing has shown the Wuhan virus is actually much closer to a known coronavirus in bats.
This kind of species jumping is common, and it’s especially common in China which is why nearly all seasonal flus come from there. Flu is extremely common in birds, but not usually transmissible directly to humans. However in very poor areas in China, a given farm may have birds and pigs and humans all in very close proximity and access to appropriate hygiene isn’t what it should be. (This could happen anywhere the poverty is that bad, obviously.) Flus jump much more easily between birds and pigs, and can mutate further in the pigs. Pigs are close enough to humans that it doesn’t take a lot of changes for a bird-only flu to suddenly become a human flu. We get multiple outbreaks of it per year.
I’ve heard multiple conspiracy theories about this virus that don’t make sense, though. For one thing, someone pointed out there are HIV-like sequences in this virus, which made some people speculate it was weaponized; but that’s also true of many other viruses, and therefore meaningless. Also there have been connections drawn between a Harvard academic who, allegedly, illegally shared information about viruses with China that then was put to use in Wuhan. Furthermore, it’s been noted that the Wuhan virus has basically emptied out the streets in Hong Kong which until recently were teeming with protesters. While I think that illegal information transfer is entirely plausible, and I’m certain China would love to find novel ways of shutting down protests, what I’m not willing to believe is that this outbreak happened because China was creating a bioweapon. We’re talking about real scientists, not morons, who understand the risks of such a thing; and even though their government controls everything, even politicians have a limited understanding that this isn’t the kind of thing you mess with.
So no, I don’t believe the Wuhan virus was engineered. The currently accepted explanation for its appearance is both reasonable and likely; there’s no reason to go looking for conspiracy theories.
Fear the flu more?
A lot of sources, including the factish sheet I mentioned above, are telling us we should be much more concerned about the flu because it’s very widespread and kills thousands every year—in the US, it’s estimated 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths annually, with about 200,000 hospitalized. Indeed there are currently way more cases of the flu. The problem with this line of thinking is it’s comparing raw infection numbers at the current point in time without any context as to how the infection spreads. These numbers are in motion, and the Wuhan virus is in motion faster. In fact this flu season came much earlier than normal, so if anything I expect flu numbers are on the decline.
There are many unknowns about 2019-nCoV because it’s still early days, but the little we do know already tells us it easily has the ability to surpass the flu given time to spread.
In terms of lethality, the yearly flu we get is around 0.1% on average, meaning approximately one out of every 1,000 infected will die. Those are good odds, although they get much worse for high-risk groups. Coronaviruses are different. Some of the ones we already know about like SARS and MERS have much higher lethality rates. SARS (which came to us from bats also, and hopped to humans through civets) had a lethality estimated around 9.6%, which is utterly shocking. For the Wuhan virus we simply have no idea what the fatality rate is, but the best early guess is at least 2%; it could well be higher. And these numbers depend a lot on the availability and quality of medical care, so there’s a lot of guesswork involved.
A bigger issue here is how transmissible the virus is. Influenza is easy to catch, but harder than you might think. Although aerosol droplets may occur from a cough or a sneeze, they apparently need to be inhaled for infection to happen, unless someone sneezes in your face. It’s far easier to catch the flu from what you touch, as virus particles on your hands can transfer to your mouth, nose, or eye (where the virus basically slides down the tear ducts). The flu also has a relatively short incubation period where symptoms are absent or difficult to detect: an average of 2 days, but 1-3 are not uncommon. The virus tends to live on surfaces no longer than a couple of days.
Human coronaviruses are more transmissible. We already know the Wuhan virus can be transmitted by aerosol droplets even if you don’t inhale them, so any exposure of the mouth, nose, or eyes could be sufficient for infection if a person with the virus coughs or sneezes within about 7 yards of you; a simple mask will help reduce the risk with incidental contact, but it’s not a magic bullet. Most coronaviruses have longer incubation periods, with SARS lasting 4-6 days typically and up to two weeks in some cases, meaning there’s a much longer period of time where you can spread the disease without showing symptoms. The Wuhan virus is believed to be similar; the median incubation time has been reported around 3 days (meaning half of all cases will come in under that, and probably a lot more will be close to that), but can extend as long as two weeks. Some experts are saying the incubation period may be as much as 24 days in some cases, but it’s very difficult to tell with these things because of the possibility of contracting the infection from multiple sources. The Wuhan virus can also last longer on hard surfaces, with some estimates saying about 5 days.
So yes, the flu kills more people yearly and currently more people are infected with it. But the Wuhan virus is easier to transmit, incubates longer, and persists in the environment longer, so its infection rate has every potential to surpass the flu. The lethality rate means that if that happens, it will vastly outpace flu for deaths. While the flu is more of a concern for now, this new virus needs to be taken extremely seriously. So far public health officials worldwide are doing what they can, and we need to give them room to work and to collect more data.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, the biggest and most lethal influenza outbreak in history, which may well have killed more people than the Plague—in total numbers, not in percentages. It’s believed to have infected 500 million people (27% of the world population at that time), and killed 50 to 100 million for a lethality rate of 10 to 20%. Some scientists believe that particular flu killed almost everyone it possibly could have. So we know the flu can get worse, and it’s possible a strain that virulent can hit us again. However: consider that medicine at the time was nowhere near as advanced as today, and that flu spread much faster and further because there was a war on. That flu is considered a major factor in Germany’s defeat in the first world war, and it’s only called the Spanish flu because although it was everywhere, only neutral Spain reported the disease because other countries tried to keep it out of the public eye as long as they could to bolster their morale and war efforts. Which, like China’s famous penchant for keeping mum about new outbreaks, is probably another reason that flu got so bad.
All the panic is racist!
The “myth vs. fact” sheet I talked about went to some pretty ridiculous extremes. On the myth side it was something to the effect of the Chinese being awful dirty people and on the fact side it said that most of the panic was from “racism and xenophobia”. Which tells me a lot more about the dunce who put that sheet together than it tells me about the virus.
While there may well be people making racist denouncements of all Chinese people or even all southeast Asian people, this is of course ridiculous and those people are in the extreme minority. As in, I think you have a better chance of the flu killing you than being one of those people. Normal folks don’t pay bigots any heed. Everyone else knows it isn’t about race; it’s about poverty. Mix high population density and high poverty and you have a Petri dish for diseases of all kinds.
Just as it’s ridiculous to make this a racial thing, so too is it ridiculous to blame the concern about this virus on racism and xenophobia. It is neither of those things. If the first conclusion you jump to is that a lot of people must be racist, you have a severely warped view of the world and need to spend a lot more time with different people for another perspective. Taking the totalitarian Chinese government to task for their tendency to keep outbreaks quiet is not an unreasonable thing to do, nor is blaming them for a lot of the conditions that spawn these outbreaks.
Should you worry?
As of right now we’re definitely nowhere near panic territory (unless you’re in China, but chances are you won’t see this blog there anyway), but this new virus is very concerning because of its ability to spread. While there have been claims that this could infect as much as 60% of the world population, that seems hyperbolic to me. I’d also like to hold out hope that aggressive measures will be able to keep it in check. Whether a vaccine is reasonable to hope for, I don’t know. So I’m not panicking, but I’m definitely uneasy.
If things do get bad in your area, I don’t know if there’s a lot you can do. A mask may help somewhat if you also wear eye protection, never touch the outside without gloves, and change your mask frequently. Realistically though, there may be no avoiding it if it spreads far enough. One doctor who does YouTube videos suggested that if your area did get hit with a pandemic, you should stay inside and get your food delivered, but that’s not really any better. Delivery drivers are still an infection vector, and a pandemic would also persist for months. Unless you live off the grid and tend to stock up for months at a time, that kind of thing doesn’t seem feasible.
As far as where to expect this, it’s a crap shoot. Big cities obviously are the most likely place to see early infections and for the virus to spread, but around here we’ve been hearing about a couple of Cornell students who were being looked at (and supposedly were cleared) because of recent travel to China. Cornell is in Ithaca which is over an hour from where I am, but there’s a lot of traffic between Ithaca and Syracuse so it wouldn’t be a big leap for an infection starting there to get a foothold in my town. Really, a new pocket of infection could pop up almost anywhere.
For my part I intend to try to keep my immune system up as best I can, and simply pray that the authorities can get a handle on this thing. Not much else you can do.