While people in the United States were spellbound by the impeachment of President Trump (not), around the rest of the world there was growing concern about the rapid spread of a new coronavirus that originated in the city of Wuhan in central China. Travel from China has been curtailed by a number of countries; U.S. citizens living in China have been evacuated; and the Centers for Disease Control is taking precautionary steps for dealing with a pandemic.
How dangerous is this virus?
There is a short and a long answer to that question. The short answer is “not very.” It’s like a bad case of the flu. The general symptoms are a fever, cough and shortness of breath. There are five million severe cases of the flu each year and approximately 1 in 1,000 results in death. In China there have been 20,000 reported cases of the new coronavirus and 400 have resulted in death. So it appears to be more deadly than the flu. But we don’t know how many cases have gone undiagnosed.
Now for the long answer. To start with, throughout history, diseases have killed far more people than war. The Bubonic Plague or “Black Death” swept back and forth across Europe in the 1300s, killing a third of the population and 80 percent of the townspeople. And as recently as 1918, the Spanish influenza killed 50 million people worldwide.
But we have grown complacent about the threat of viruses in modern times, confident that medical science can find a cure for anything. Still, we have not eliminated the flu and as yet there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus.
Many have also become complacent about viruses — perhaps “cynical” is a better word — because the media has sensationalized a number of recent threats, such as Ebola, the bird flu, the swine flu, SARS and MERS, that have turned out to be not very serious.
But two trends warrant taking the threat of viruses very seriously. One is that the speed of transportation today has made the world a much smaller place. So a virus which once might have been confined to a particular geographic region can quickly become global. The second is that as the world population has increased, we have increasingly come in contact with other species and are seeing animal-to-human transmission of viruses.
A virus is a tiny infectious organism that can reproduce, and even evolve and mutate, but lacks a cell structure and can only replicate inside the living cells of other organisms. If it is unchecked, a virus can destroy the life form it infects. In animals and human beings, a viral infection usually provokes an immune response that attacks and eliminates the virus. Vaccines can produce artificial immune responses with some viruses, but antibiotics have no effect on them.
Coronaviruses are common among animals. Researchers believe this new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) originated in bats, was transmitted to small animals, then mutated and spread to human beings. What makes it particularly dangerous and warrants precautionary measures is that because it is new, we know little about it. For example, we don’t know how it is spread; we don’t know its incubation period (the time from contracting a virus until its symptoms appear); we don’t know if it is contagious during its incubation period; we don’t know its ability to mutate; and we don’t have a vaccine to prevent its spread.
What we do know is that this new coronavirus appears to be spreading at an increasing rate and confirmed cases are now showing up in countries other than China. I am not trying to alarm anyone; this is not like a zombie apocalypse where people are going to be running around foaming at the mouth. As I said in my short answer, at this time, it appears to be more like a bad case of the flu. But we are likely to see more new viruses develop and spread in the future, so we should not criticize the government and its agencies for taking precautions when they don’t know with what they are dealing.