Ominous March of a Virus
The speedy spread of a coronavirus from Wuhan recalls the spread and alarm associated with SARS. After the first reported death from SARS in Hong Kong, on March 4, 2003, the disease quickly spread across the globe, affecting citizens in 18 countries. The epidemic lasted for about four months.
Seventeen years later, there is better reporting and a rapid public health response. On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization raised alarm about pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, and China began an investigation and quarantines. The first death was reported January 11 and initally associated with a market in Wuhan. Less than a month later, cases were confirmed in 12 nations, with most in China.
The ongoing outbreak of both the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, and the Wuhan disease have prompted caution around the world. Both are a coronavirus and share symptoms with the common cold. Global public health officials monitor the spread of any disease, and the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which killed more than 20 million people, is never far from mind.
SARS did not cause nearly as many deaths as the flu, but both it and the Wuhan coronavirus spread more rapidly due to the speed and intensification of globalization. In the early 20th century, people and troops traveling on trains and ships spread the flu. Affordable air travel and increased numbers of international air passengers have facilitated the movement of SARS and the Wuhan virus from Asia to North America and Europe in a matter of days. In March 2003, a Chinese doctor visiting Hong Kong died of SARS, but not before infecting people at his hotel and the hospital.
The Wuhan coronavirus is especially challenging, emerging between two busy travel periods: the winter break for international college students and the Chinese Lunar Year.
Viruses can easily leapfrog to destinations round the globe. In this Special Report, YaleGlobal explores the spread and impact of such diseases.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is an acute form of pneumonia. Initial symptoms include a fever, sometimes with body aches, headaches, or other signs of discomfort. In the first week of onset, SARS patients may also experience a dry, non-productive cough. In severe cases, patients may need to be placed on artificial respirators. According the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, people who contract SARS may not experience symptoms for up to 10 days after contracting the virus.
New Wuhan Coronavirus Symptoms
Symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, reports the World Health Organization. Chest radiographs showing bilateral lung infiltrates. Some patients do not display severe symptoms.
The World Health Organization offers advice:
- Clean hands often, using alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water;
- When coughing and sneezing, cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash hands;
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough;
- Those with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical care early and share travel history with health providers;
- In areas experiencing cases, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals, and clean hands frequently;
- Avoid consumption of undercooked cooked animal products, and handle raw meat, milk or animal organs with care to avoid cross-contamination.
“Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV),” reports the World Health Organization.”A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.”
Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and people. Investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. “Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans,” reports WHO.
The Spread of a Coronavirus
Investigations showed that SARS, the new Wuhan coronavirus or even the common cold are spread mainly through droplet transmission. For example, if an infected person coughs or sneezes , the expelled droplets, if inhaled, can infect another person. Another possible mode of transmission is simple contact with contaminated objects.
China took the unprecedented step of shutting down public transportation and cancelling activities in multiple cities.
“Ongoing preparedness and investment can go a long way in preventing global public health crises,” argues Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health.