The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that has spread from China to more than 25 countries, is more difficult to contain than previously thought. The death toll from the infection soars past 565, with more than 28,256 confirmed cases. Scientists from around the globe are racing to determine the mode of transmission and how the virus spreads at such a rapid pace.
The new strain has been classified as a zoonosis; due to the way it spreads from animals to humans.
Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Image Credit: The Wistar Institute
The virus, which has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), is just a recent example of how pathogens can start in animals and make their way through the human population, triggering deadly consequences.
A bulk of disease outbreaks over the past years, such as the swine flu, bird flu, SARS, MERS-CoV, the Hendra virus, and the deadly Ebola virus, are transmitted from host animals to humans.
In the latest zoonotic disease outbreak, dubbed the Wuhan coronavirus, the exact culprit animal is still unknown, but many health experts pinpoint to fruit bats as possible hosts.
Microbial ecologists suggest that as a result of continuing deforestation and hunting of wild animals, the novel coronavirus isn’t the last zoonotic disease that will wreak havoc in the world. Most often, diseases transmitted from host animals to humans tend to be deadly and harder to treat.
Wild bat and primate species might have adapted living with viruses, particularly those closely related to SARS and HIV, respectively. When humans encounter wild animals, especially through hunting activities or eating wild animals, these pathogens can spill over to the human population, causing deadly disease outbreaks.
Institut Pasteur isolates strains of coronavirus 2019-nCoV detected in France. On the left, a cell layer not damaged by the viruses. On the right, a cell layer with a visible cytopathic effect (CPE); the cells infected by the virus have been destroyed. Image Credit: Institut Pasteur/CNR for Respiratory Viruses at the Institut Pasteur
How serious is the virus spread?
In the latest update, Chinese authorities report a death toll of 563, adding more deaths in the last 24 hours. The number of people infected with the coronavirus tops 28,018, with more cases being confirmed in China and other countries.
Over 25 countries have reported confirmed cases of the virus outbreak, with Japan, Singapore, and Thailand reporting the greatest number of infected people, with 33, 28, and 25 confirmed cases, respectively. The first death outside China has been reported in the Philippines, followed by the second death in Hong Kong.
In a new report in The New England Journal of Medicine, scientists calculated for the R-naught, a mathematical equation used to determine how many people will get sick from one infected person. It’s the ability of infected person to transmit the virus to an environment where people have no immunity against the disease.
They found that the R-naught value was approximately 2.2, which means about 2 persons can get ill from every contaminated person, making it more than infectious than the seasonal flu and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, with an R-naught value of 1, killed more than 50 million across the globe.
To compare, the R-naught value of the SARS outbreak in 2003 has a value of 2 to 5. The Ebola disease has a value of 1.51 to 2.53, H1N1 has 1.48, MERS-CoV has 1, Smallpox has 5 to 7, and the most infectious of them all is measles with 12 to 18.
Based on the data, there is evidence that human-to-human transmission has occurred among close contacts since December when the first cases were reported.
“Considerable efforts to reduce transmission will be required to control outbreaks if similar dynamics apply elsewhere. Measures to prevent or reduce transmission should be implemented in populations at risk,” the researchers noted on the paper.
Precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus is crucial. The WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone to practice regular handwashing to prevent the spread of the virus. Further, everyone is urged to avoid crowded places, wear a mask or stay at home when sick, and seek medical attention when symptoms appear.
New diagnostic test for coronavirus
With the thousands of people being infected by the virus, diagnostic kit supplies are lacking. Countries are developing diagnostic tests to accommodate the testing of persons under investigation for the coronavirus infection.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an emergency approval of a test for the new coronavirus. It allows the new test to be performed in state health laboratories, in the aim to speed up efforts to detect cases of the virus in the United States.
The FDA says that supplying and distributing the diagnostic test to qualified laboratories is a crucial step to protect public health and contain the spread of the virus.
The regulatory agency approved the test under an Emergency Use Authorization to sidestep the usually regulatory channels. This will hasten the approval and distribution of the test kits when no other approved alternatives are available. The same method happened in approving test kits for other disease outbreaks, such as the Zika virus, Ebola virus, and the MERS-CoV.
In the United States, about 260 people are under investigation for the infection. So far, 11 have been confirmed to harbor the virus, and 167 have been tested negative. The remaining 82 patients are still waiting for test results.
Race to determine an effective treatment regimen
Many countries are racing to find an effective treatment regimen to fight the virus. Various personalities and organizations are chipping in to find a cure for the illness and prevent further spread.
Bill and Medline Gates are donating $100 million to coronavirus vaccine research and treatment efforts, which was declared as part of WHO’s request for $675 million in contributions worldwide.
The funds will be used to assist the WHO and Chinese front-liners as they struggle to contain the deadly virus that has killed hundreds of people and infecting tens of thousands in mainland China and across the globe.
Li, Q., Guan, X., Wu, P., Wang, X., Zhou, L., Tong, Y., Ren, R., Leung, K., Lau, E., Wong, J., Xing, X., and Xiang, N. et al. Early Transmission Dynamics in Wuhan, China, of Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia. The New England Journal of Medicine. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2001316