Behind the coronavirus headlines

A quick glance at the front pages this morning, Friday 28 February, gives a fairly good indication of what’s on everyone’s minds: Covid-19, or novel coronavirus.

A significant number of those headlines are really speculations. I’ve just read stories about how the coronavirus will cause a global recession, propel Bernie Sanders into the White House, wreak havoc on Australia’s tertiary education sector and even ‘de-Americanise’ the global economy.

These are some pretty drastic predictions. Nobody really knows how the spread of novel coronavirus will affect global geopolitics or economics. When the media scrambles for headlines, it’s easy to over-speculate - each of those possible outcomes depend on a whole host of factors that make such simple cause-and-effect logic difficult. If Bernie Sanders wins the White House, it won’t just be because of the coronavirus.

When media coverage reaches this kind of pitch, I find it helpful to look for similar events in the past to gain perspective. Some quick digging finds a few: the SARS outbreak in 2002, the MERS outbreak in 2012, and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

First, some quick facts. SARS, MERS and Covid-19 are all coronaviruses. This is a large family of viruses that also includes the common cold. They spread through close contact with someone else’s cough or sneeze droplets, which in practice means you get it by touching something like a doorknob and then rubbing your eyes. This is why surgical masks are only effective in preventing an already-infected person from spreading the disease: if you’re healthy, masks won’t stop you getting it. You’re better off washing your hands and not touching your face.

These three viruses are also ‘zoonotic’, meaning they come from animals. SARS came from civet cats in China, MERS came from dromedary camels in the Middle East and the novel virus possibly emerged from bats.

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

There are two numbers to consider when looking at a new virus: the estimated average number of people each sick person infects (known as R naught, or R0), and the fatality rate. Ebola has an R0 of 2, the seasonal flu has an R0 of around 1.3, whilst measles can have an R0 as high as 18. R0 varies depending on the environment - it is likely higher on cruise ships, for example, with lots of people over 65 sharing close quarters. Current estimates for COVID-19 place the R naught between 2 and 3.1, and the fatality rate between 1 and 2.5 per cent.

SARS had an estimated R naught of 2.9 when it first emerged in 2002 and appeared to spread fastest in hospitals with poor infection control practices. This was recognised and corrective measures brought the R naught down to .4. WHO estimates the fatality rate of SARS at around 14-15 per cent. 18 years later, there is still no vaccine.

MERS was predominantly found in Saudi Arabia, but infected almost 2500 globally and killed 858. It is less contagious than SARS with an R naught of 1 but has a much higher fatality rate of 34.4 per cent. The mechanism of infection remains unclear – guidelines include washing your hands, not touching your face and avoiding camels as much as possible. There is also no vaccine.

Unlike SARS and MERS, the H1N1 influenza is not a coronavirus, but like COVID-19 it infected a far higher number of people globally than SARS or MERS. Estimates place the number of infected between 700 million and 1.4 billion, around 11-21 per cent of the world population. It killed between 151,000 and 575,400 people with an R0 of 1.4-1.6 and a fatality rate of less than .1 per cent.

So in terms of the numbers, COVID-19 looks to be a combination of SARS and the H1N1 flu. It spreads more easily than either, has a lower fatality rate than SARS but a higher rate than H1N1. It’s worth noting that these variables depend on age – in the majority of people under 65 the novel coronavirus is likely to result in mild fever-like illness.

There is also the question of whether the R0 can be reduced, as SARS was. China’s infection rate appears to have decreased, which could mean that quarantine measures taken there are working - but it is really too early to tell, and even if those measures are effective other countries may not be able to replicate them.

So we end this article where we started – it’s too early and difficult to make any prediction with reasonable accuracy. That means speculations about the effect on the American presidential election and America’s strategic role in the global economic system are unhelpful. For now I think it’s just best to wash your hands.

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