FOCUS: 2019-20 Coronavirus Outbreak

Where does the virus come from? How dangerous is it? How can you prevent contracting it? And when will a vaccine be available?

FOCUS: 2019-20 Coronavirus Outbreak
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Cases of a novel coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2) are confirmed all over the world. It is the cause of Coronavirus disease 2019, COVID-19, as it is called by the World Health Organization. Most media refer to SARS-CoV-2 simply as “coronavirus,” even though the common cold, SARS or MERS are caused by different coronaviruses. SARS killed about 900 people in a 2002 outbreak.

You may have many questions about the novel coronavirus. Here, we present answers based on our most recent abstracts on the topic – watch out for updates.

Where does the novel coronavirus come from?

Quite possibly: Bats. There has been some speculation that the novel coronavirus emerged from a “wet market” in Wuhan, China. Wet markets sell a variety of animals, like foxes, snakes and porcupines, and animal products. Chinese researchers mapped the genetic code of the virus early on and compared it to similar viruses in an international database. These comparisons revealed a close match to a virus found in bats. Some viruses can jump between species, as did the viruses that cause Ebola, SARS, the bubonic plague and bird flu. Visit our Epidemics Channel for further information.

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How does it spread?

Early data suggests that the novel coronavirus isn’t airborne, and it’s therefore not as contagious as, for example, measles. The novel coronavirus probably spreads through respiratory droplets that take to the air when someone coughs or sneezes, or sit on surfaces such as door handles. People can get infected if these droplets come into contact with their mucous membranes in the eyes, the nose or mouth.

Here you can see how the disease spread worldwide:

As Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker write in The New York Times, the virus “can be transmitted by individuals before the onset of symptoms or even if they don’t become ill. An infected person appears to spread the disease to an average of 2.6 people. After 10 generations of transmission, with each taking about five or six days, that one initial case has spawned more than 3,500, most with no or mild symptoms, yet probably infectious. The fact that mild cases are difficult to differentiate from colds or the flu only complicates the diagnosis.”

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An in-depth study shows how asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus are causing massive spread of COVID-19.

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How dangerous is it?

Scientists are still working to understand how the novel coronavirus spreads, and who is most at risk. What we know so far:

SARS-CoV-2 may be a novel virus, but the disease it causes is in many ways comparable to the flu: The younger and healthier the host, the less dangerous the course of the disease. Most people infected by the novel coronavirus won’t even recognize that they are sick. The virus can be life-threatening for the weak and/or elderly, but even with them, most cases of illness are benign.

Here you can see how the case fatality rate varies from country to country:

Not everyone who gets infected by this novel coronavirus will recognize it, especially because the symptoms are mild in most cases. For those who do seek treatment, about two out of every 100 die. That number sounds scary but note that the figures available so far should be treated with caution, as there may be many unreported cases. The number of deaths per 100 patients is therefore probably much lower than the above figure.

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Who is getting sick?

Gender, age and health status play a crucial role in finding out how dangerous the virus can be to you. STAT recently published a good breakdown of coronavirus risk by demographic factors.


What course could the outbreak take?

Ever since the 2019-20 coronavirus outbreak grew into a pandemic, people wonder what effect protective measures – such as washing hands – can have. The Economist and others have shown graphs that detail two different scenarios: One in which the novel coronavirus SARS-CoVid-2 causes a large number of cases of coronavirus disease COVID-19 over a short time, and another in which protective measures help to delay the spread of the virus; as a consequence, the duration of the outbreak is prolonged, but the number of cases never reaches a critical threshold that would cause the collapse of our health care systems. Thomas Pueyo has summarized the problem in a very appealing way on Medium.

As The Guardian reported, interventions are powerful means to counteract the spread of COVID-19:

Sophisticated modelling of the outbreak suggests that China had 114,325 cases by the end of February 2020, a figure that would have been 67 times higher without interventions such as early detection, isolation of the infected, and travel restrictions. But if the interventions could have been brought in a week earlier, 66% fewer people would have been infected, the analysis found. The same measures brought in three weeks earlier could have reduced cases by 95%.

Ian Sample, Science Editor at The Guardian

Time, therefore, to be alert and to keep your distance from others for a certain time.

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How much isolation is enough isolation?

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How can you prevent contracting (or spreading) the virus?

What you can do:

1) Keep calm and rational.

2) Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly.

3) Keep a distance from others. Avoid crowds and shaking hands.

4) Wear a mask.

5) Cough and sneeze into a tissue or the crook of your arm.

6) Dispose of waste in a trash can with a lid.

7) Stay at home if you have a high temperature or a cough, if possible.

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Osterholm and Olshaker also suggest to plan for basic contingencies: “Companies can cross-train key staff members so that one person’s absence won’t derail the business. Family members and friends should be watchful of one another’s health and welfare, and stand prepared to care for the moderately ill if hospitals become overtaxed.”


Can herd immunity stop the virus in time?

Some political leaders have suggested letting herd immunity to COVID-19 develop naturally – a situation similar to that which appears to have occurred with the Zika virus five years ago. The problem is, this would overwhelm hospitals’ ability to care for the sickest victims and millions would likely die – and no one knows the extent to which COVID-19 imparts immunity in people who get it.

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What effects does the coronavirus outbreak have on the economy?

From snapping supply chains to financial collapse the effects are manifold. Let’s focus on the biggest problems:

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Many companies have taken infection prevention measures and different sets of actions to deal with the ongoing challenge. McKinsey & Company have compiled some of these. And when it comes to best practices from China, where companies have already gained more experience in dealing with the state of emergency, our colleagues at the Harvard Business Review provide important advice.

For employees who have been instructed to work remotely from home, we compiled useful advice:

What else can companies do? European university-based researchers developed a set of best practices derived from the Chinese experience, and summed them up in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Their findings offer a helpful starting point for business leaders adjusting to this new reality.

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Businesses can learn from China’s experience coping with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis.

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How long will it take to develop a vaccine?

Likely between a year and 18 months. Read the following abstract to find out why:

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You’ve already had a coronavirus.

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Anyone hoping for a quick resolution to the novel coronavirus pandemic will gain valuable perspective from this reader-friendly overview of the benefits and risks that efforts to fast-track development of an innovative vaccine are offering a world in tumult:

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And then: Wash! Your! Hands!


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