Mapping the coronavirus outbreak

Sally Dobie

Image Credit: NIAID

As the world celebrated the new year, the first cases of a newly identified coronavirus were reported in China.

Now, just over a month into 2020, there are over 24,000 reported infections, and over 490 people dead.

The Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is said to cause pneumonia-like symptoms and is part of a family of viruses that affects the respiratory system. Other members of the coronavirus family include the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC) believes symptoms could appear between two and 14 days after exposure, and include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

Many coronaviruses circulate among animals like camels, bats and cats, but very occasionally can mutate and cause infection amongst people as well.

The origin of the virus can reportedly be traced back to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan, Hubei Province, according to the CDC. The market was closed on January 1st, but not before the scope of people believed to be infected was over 40.

Wuhan, with a population of 11.08m people, was the first city to be shut down, with all public transport and outward travel halted on January 23rd.

Now, nine other cities with a combined population of around 20 million have imposed transport restrictions both within and from of the city, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

In the last 20 years there have been two similar, severe coronaviruses, both of which caused over 750 deaths.

Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and caused severe respiratory illness. According to the CDC, around four in every ten people who contracted MERS died.

According to the World Health Organisation(WHO), a total of 858 deaths have been linked to MERS since 2012, with 27 countries reporting cases.

SARS was identified in China in 2002, and in 2012 was declared a select agent: a “bacterium, virus or toxin that has the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.”

Between November 2002 and July 2003, over 8,000 people contracted SARS, which is said to be transmitted through “respiratory droplets” (coughing or sneezing). Of those 8,000, 774 died.

On January 5th 2020, the possibility of the virus being a resurgence of SARS was ruled out, and then on January 7th it was announced they had identified a new virus.

The rate of transmission seemed to speed up after that, the first death and the first confirmed case of 2019-nCoV outside of China occurred within two days of each other, but it took a further ten days for Wuhan to be placed under quarantine.

Now cases of 2019-nCoV have been confirmed in other countries around the world, including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, France and Australia.

The timing of the outbreak caused concern, coinciding with the beginning of Chinese New Year. This meant more people would be travelling to visit family, and large crowds would gather for celebrations.

Beijing cancelled events for the Lunar New Year beginning on January 25 as more cases of 2019-nCoV were reported.

WHO declared the 2019-nCoV an emergency for China last week, and recently said there was a high global risk.

At the time of the publication of this article there have been no confirmed cases in Ireland, however an international student at Waterford Institute of Technology(WIT) who left Wuhan before the quarantine has been placed in “lockdown”, and according to the Irish Examiner, WIT staff are being directed by the HSE on dealing with the situation.

A new hospital is currently under construction in Wuhan, in an attempt to treat those with 2019-nCoV. It is estimated to take only ten days. With over 60 diggers, and the use of prefabricated elements, the 1,000-bed hospital is due to start receiving patients on February 3rd.

Coverage of the issue by Chinese and international press has been an issue since 2019-nCoV was identified at the beginning of February.

The response of Chinese citizens on social media has been explosive. In a country known for its policing of online comments and restrictions, the outcry of residents has been difficult to ignore.

Many online critics focused on Wuhan’s officials, who were spotted at a public event wearing their required medical masks incorrectly. One article in The New York Times said when Wuhan’s Mayor spoke to the public, a citizen said, “If the virus is fair, then please don’t spare this useless person.”

During the SARS outbreak over 15 years ago, social media was in its infancy, and it was easy for the government to control what was published about the spread of the virus. However, in 2020 social media is a powerful tool that is difficult to police in its entirety.

With the prolific use of smartphones, it is impossible to completely control the narrative, but posts and comments relating to 2019-nCoV are still being deleted.

One Chinese internet expert and creator of China Digital Time, Xiao Qiang, said that even the Chinese media outlets that have openly criticised the situation should not be seen as independent, as many of them receive permission from the government to cover topics that official sources cannot. Xiao called it “planned and controlled publicity”.

However even then, both Chinese and international citizens cannot be sure if the figures that the Chinese government have provided are completely true, or if there is higher mortality, and a higher illness rate being concealed.

Another massive issue closely related to this is the spread of misinformation from both government and non-governmental sources online. Some twitter accounts are claiming the real figure of confirmed infections are in the tens of thousands, and independent American news outlet “naturalnews.com” claimed Wuhan was adding an additional 100,000 beds to the new hospital.

Even official sources from China have been mixed, the media giant Buzzfeed said that Chinese official Lijian Zhao, posted a picture of the alleged first finished building of the Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan. The photograph was later found to be of an apartment complex in Qingdao.

Sally Dobie

Image Credit: NIAID