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Researchers say coronavirus requires high alert

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Multiple Chinese cities, with tens of millions of inhabitants, are now in quarantine, and there are infected people in a growing number of countries. The new coronavirus is causing great concern. But how dangerous is it, and how reliable is the information?

There is ample evidence that the novel virus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, was originally transmitted from animals to humans. A local market selling live wild animals for food (bushmeat) in Wuhan City, 700 km (approx. 430 miles) west of Shanghai, is said to have been the transmission site.

This is the third outbreak of a zoonotic coronavirus (one that spreads from animals to humans) in the past couple of decades. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was discovered in 2003, and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) arrived in 2012. Tomas Bergström, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, does antiviral research focusing on respiratory tract viruses such as coronaviruses.

“SARS had high contagion and mortality rates, while MERS was less contagious but strikingly often fatal in people with impaired lung function. My impression is that the new virus is less deadly than SARS, but we don’t yet know for sure,” Bergström says.

“Clearly, we have to give our full attention to this problem, and follow what happens. And if it turns into a major epidemic, I assure you there’ll be totally different rules and recommendations here in Sweden, too. But we’re not there yet.”

Monitoring and transparency

What is unmistakable, on the other hand, is that China’s way of tackling this outbreak is entirely different from its response to earlier coronavirus outbreaks. According to Bergström, the country has gone from covering up the SARS outbreak in 2003 to being transparent about the national spread of infection, and measures to combat it, this time.

“Chinese society is multifaceted, but in this area they’ve learned not to lie,” he says.

So the rest of the world is in the know?

“Yes; it’s just as if it had happened in the EU or U.S., which is great. Today, there’s a system in place — created by China with American support — for monitoring outbreaks. I’ve been in Beijing, visiting the people who work on this, and the Chinese have become proficient and open. As badly as they managed the previous outbreak, that’s how well they seem to be doing today.”

Commonplace viruses

In addition to these rare zoonotic coronaviruses, human coronaviruses are common viruses that that normally spread through human-to-human transmission. They cause symptoms resembling those of a cold or influenza, such as sore throat and coughing, and sometimes pneumonia. Treatment consists mainly in care to support the vital functions of such organs as the lungs and kidneys.

“There are four human coronaviruses that have long existed in humans. They circulate in society, bringing the common cold and sometimes pneumonia,. Diagnosing people infected with various coronaviruses isn’t a problem, but there still aren’t any vaccines, nor any antiviral drugs, available,” Bergström says.

Contact: Tomas Bergström

More about the coronavirus: World Health Organization (WHO) and Public Health Agency of Sweden

Images: Passengers on the Shanghai Metro after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (photo: iStock), and a headshot of Tomas Bergström (photo: Johan Wingborg)