By Helen Petousis Harris 22/01/2020 3

Probably yes to both but don’t panic yet. There is a plan.

What is this virus?

2019 novel coronavirus, aka 2019-nCoV, belongs to a family of viruses called coronavirus. These are very common viruses that infect a wide range of animals including humans and can cause mild to severe disease, from colds to severe pneumonia.

Coronaviruses are often transmitted between animals and people (this means they are zoonotic). Well known examples are the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) that made the leap from civet cats to humans in 2002/3, and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) that jumped from dromedary camels to humans in 2014. Both caused many deaths, MERS was more lethal. This new virus appears less aggressive that SARS and MERS.

On New Year’s Eve China advised the World Health Organization (WHO) that they were seeing cases of severe pneumonia of unknown cause. A week later they had identified a new coronavirus as the culprit (2019-nCoV). I think it needs a new name, this one is a bit boring. Given it emerged in China maybe CARS-CoV might be catchy. I recommend the WHO pages on this emerging threat.

The structure of a coronavirus. (Roger Harris/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

How much is known about it?

In less than a month the following has been established:

  • Identifying the virus enables identification of cases – now we know what to look for
  • The virus can be transmitted person-to-person, not just from animal to person. This significantly increases the chances of spread.
  • There is an average of 10-days between infection and detection
  • The full genome was published in the public domain on GenBank and in the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) portal. This allows researchers all over the world to start working on solutions
  • Researchers at the Imperial College in London carried out some modelling which suggested that there must have been many more cases than had been notified based on the spread. At the time of the modelling (Jan 17th) they estimated about 1700 compared to the 60 or so confirmed reported. Note the lower estimate was 427 and the upper estimate 4471 and these do not include mild cases or cases with no symptoms. More cases means more potential for spread.
  • The US CDC have already developed a real time PCR test that can diagnose this virus. They will soon share these tests through their International Reagent Resource, which makes reagents and tools such as detection kits available to users.

This is a pretty impressive international response!

How far has it spread?

As of 22nd Jan the following countries have reported cases:

  • China (nearly 300 cases, 6 deaths)
  • Thailand (2)
  • Japan (1)
  • Republic of Korea (1)
  • United States (1)

To the best of my knowledge there are no secondary cases in these countries. However, human-to-human transmission poses loads more challenges for limiting the spread. There are around 3300 passengers per day from Wuhan, which has a population of around 11 million.

What is being done to stop it?

Agencies all over the world are monitoring the situation closely. Some places have set up screening of passengers coming from Wuhan China at their boarders
The WHO have an emergency meeting on Wednesday 22 Jan to determine if this is a public health emergency. If this happens then there will be resources mobilised and the WHO will have more power to control disease under International Health Regulations. This would be a very rare move.

Can you treat it?

There are no effective treatments for coronaviruses per se. The symptoms can be treated.

Can you avoid it?

As with any infectious respiratory disease – wash hands, cover coughs and sneezes, stay away from sick people. This virus is probably spread droplets in the air from coughs and sneezes.

What about a vaccine?

If this proves to be a public health emergency, then a vaccine is likely. Already scientists at the US National Institutes of Health, are working on a vaccine. Also, a group at the Baylor College of medicine. A group in Canada have also thrown their hat in the ring. No doubt there are others too, such as Novavax.

Developing a vaccine against coronavirus is not as challenging as for some other infections. Coronaviruses have a protein called the ‘S’ protein that is a good vaccine target. The gene for this protein can be inserted into something like an adenovirus vector to produce a live viral vaccine. Investigative vaccines against SARS and MERS using this technology have been successfully used in animal models including non-human primates. Also virus-like particle vaccines like HPV vaccines.

Just last year a MERS DNA vaccine (also based on this ‘S’ protein) was tested in humans and looked likely to be protective based on the type of immune response it produced. People who had received the vaccine had the same type of immunity to MERS as people who had recovered from the disease.

It would be at least a year before a vaccine was available but it is lieky very doable. It all depends on what happens next!

Should we have boarder control?

We should follow our NZ pandemic preparedness plan.

There is a six-stage strategy. The second phase is boarder management (keep it out). The potential trigger is sustained human-to-human transmission in two or more countries. As of today, this has not yet been demonstrated.

Watch this space!

Some other links:

Siouxsie Wiles’ Sciblog Infectious Thoughts on this topic


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