All around the world, people are worried about the Wuhan Coronavirus. How dangerous is it? What can be done about it? Science provides some answers.
The virus is tiny. If you placed it next to a human hair, it would look like a poodle next to the Empire State Building. It is packaged inside a bumpy sphere, which looks like a crown. The Latin word for crown is “corona,” and that is why scientists call it a coronavirus.
There are many different members of the coronavirus family. The one that originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 has been given the name nCov-19. It causes the illness called COVID-19.
Most viruses are either dangerous or spread very rapidly, but usually not both. The Ebola virus, for instance, which originated near the Ebola River in Congo, is extremely lethal. It kills about half who get it. Fortunately, it doesn’t spread easily.
The seasonal flu is the opposite: It spreads through the air as well as through touch, but it is not very dangerous, except for those who are old. In the last flu season, about 46 million Americans were infected with the flu. It led to 550,000 hospitalizations, and around 41,000 died – less than 0.1% of those infected.
COVID-19 is different. For certain risk groups, the Coronavirus is maybe ten times more dangerous than ordinary flu. At the same time, it spreads as fast – or faster. Although the virus is harmless to most people, it could still end up killing around half a million Americans and hospitalizing more than five million if we do nothing to protect the vulnerable.
Who is at Risk?
Based on data from the cruise ship Diamond Princess and studies from China, around 60% of those who are infected did not show any symptoms and never get sick. That’s the main reason that the virus can spread so quickly. Around 32% had mild symptoms, resembling the ordinary flu. Another 6% had severe symptoms, which means that they had trouble breathing, but all of them recovered. 2% had critical symptoms, and they needed hospital care to survive. Half of those died, which makes up about 1% of all infected.
Of the passengers on the Diamond Princess, 58% were older than 60, and almost all the people who are at risk to die from the disease are in this age group. Young and healthy people are not as likely to die.
What Can We Do?
Both Germany and Spain have more than 20,000 cases. In Germany, only 73 people (0.3%) have died, but in Spain, the death toll is 1,326 (5.3%). What’s the difference? Germany and other Northern European countries have been good at isolating the old and sick from infection. In Spain and Italy, people working in hospitals and retirement homes have accidentally infected many of the most vulnerable.
The lesson we can learn from this is that extra care should be taken to protect the old and sick from being infected. Young people can contribute to this by washing their hands often and covering their coughs and sneezes. And most important of all: Keep a distance from all senior citizens until the pandemic is over.