Imagine a fatty balloon with a spiky surface–the coronavirus. Like others in the family, the COVID-19 gets its name from its crown-like protein projections–”corona” being the Latin word for “crown”.
As of March 5, there are globally about 95,000 cases of the coronavirus–80,000 of them in China, where cases are perhaps now plateauing. Other parts of the world, however, like Italy and Iran are seeing significant outbreaks, with a death toll reported as being around 100 each, and Korea is another country suffering from increasingly heightened cases. The global death toll is said to be around 3,300–of those, 2,900 in Hubei, China.
Meanwhile in the U.S. and U.K., the numbers of infected people have been continuously ticking up and panic’s setting in, especially for people living and working around areas of outbreak. The U.S. coronavirus task force says it now considers the coronavirus a national security threat. And Europe’s in a similar place to what China was in back in early January, according to Adam Kucharski, associate professor in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“I think this is many, many times more severe than flu,” he said in a discussion with New Scientist released on March 6.
“One of the things to emphasize with these average severity estimates,” he continued, “is there’s a huge skew with age, so it might overall be relatively low–if you’re in your teens or 20’s potentially–but people in their 50’s, 60’s onwards, we’re looking at far more severe outcomes.”
A common worry especially in the U.S., where people tend to have more pre-existing conditions, or in countries with much older populations demographically, is that although the average death rate is currently placed at the 0.5 and 2% range by experts, this number may go up significantly in populations with a higher risk.
One thing experts have been perplexing over, is the method of contagion. Why is the death rate for patients in Iran almost double that of patients in countries like South Korea, Italy and Japan? Why do children under 10 appear to be relatively immune to infection?
“We’re getting evidence that potentially 40% – 60% of people might not show symptoms,” says Kucharski, who’s just released his book, The Rules of Contagion, which explains what makes things spread–from infectious diseases and online misinformation to gun violence and financial crises–and how we can change what happens in future.
“The other thing worth noting is that there’s lag–potentially about a few weeks–between cases becoming ill and deaths, so if you get to the situation where some countries are, where you’re seeing a lot of severe cases and deaths, that suggests you have a huge amount of uncontrolled infection,” he says, estimating that there are potentially thousands of completely undetected cases.
The modern world squeezes millions into cities, spreading diseases from continent to continent in hours, at a speed undreamed of in the past.
A global pandemic certainly offers a timely warning, reminding us that, despite our advanced technologies–in this modern age of internet, smartphones and high-speed jets–we are still not immune to the power of nature and our own paranoid response to it.