In 1976 I worked with the Alabama Lung Association around the time of a feared reemergence of the so-called “swine flu,” a type of H1N1 influenza that killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide in a 1918 pandemic. In the ’70s we pushed for public inoculations, even running mass flu-shot drives at the Alabama State Fair. Many got the shots but many didn’t. Then we got lucky: the outbreak never happened.
Learning what a real pandemic could do to a society that has forgotten the suffering and death of the past was a sobering reality for me, at that time just five years out of college. Then there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Internet. News moved slowly. Like I said, we got lucky.
The term coronavirus relates to the appearance of the organism under the microscope, looking something like the corona of a solar eclipse. Today we have social media, the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle, and smartphones. Today we won’t have to beg people to take the 2019-nCOV (novel Coronavirus) outbreak in China seriously. The news of this outbreak is everywhere, and people are getting scared.
But panic serves no one. As yet there have been no deaths from 2019-nCOV outside of China. The United States and most first world countries are well-positioned to deal with this new threat, as challenging as it is. The problem is there are third world countries that are not, and this virus is potentially more dangerous.
You have probably had the flu at one time or another. It gave you miserable symptoms; upper respiratory congestion, body aches, chills, nausea and sweats. It knocked you down and kept you in bed for days, perhaps a week or more. In children and the elderly with preexisting health conditions, it can be life-threatening. On average 36,000 people die in the U.S. every year from flu.
While the various strains of influenza affect the upper airways of the lungs, this virus also aggressively attacks the lower regions at the same time. Today, there is no treatment and no inoculation. It is similar in some ways to the earlier coronaviruses known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and thus scientists had a jump on it and are well along in devising an inoculation, but it will still be months before such a thing clears needed testing to be safe for public use. We had a head start, but the virus is spreading fast.
At this writing, more than 9,900 cases have been confirmed worldwide, with 213 deaths and 222 patients who have recovered from the illness. The number of infected people and deaths worldwide is changing fast. You can track it realtime with a global Johns Hopkins interactive map via this link:
2019-nCoV What Is It?
According to Science News: “It is the damage to the lungs that can make these viruses deadly. In 2003 and 2004, SARS killed nearly 10 percent of the 8,096 people in 29 countries who fell ill. A total of 774 people died, according to the World Health Organization.
MERS claims about 30 percent of people it infects. Unlike SARS, outbreaks of that virus are still simmering, Fauci says. Since 2012, MERS has caused 2,494 confirmed cases in 27 countries and killed 858 people.”
Is There A Vaccine?
According to Mic, a vaccine is well in the works, but the vaccine wouldn’t be available to the public for about a year, according to the New York Times.
Mic reported “The concept for the vaccine began when Chinese health officials shared the genetic makeup of the virus on a public database on January 10th. Barney Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the N.I.H, and his team were in the lab the following morning trying to crack the code, the Times reported. Kizzmekia Corbett, the scientific lead for Graham’s coronavirus team, already had a system in place for developing a coronavirus vaccine after studying SARS and MERS, which are also in the corona family of viruses.
Where Did It Come From?
Chinese “wet markets” are probably the vector, where wild animals are sold for food, but both bats and snakes may be in the transmission chain. According to Mic “Snakes — the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra — may be the original source of the newly discovered coronavirus that has triggered an outbreak of a deadly infectious respiratory illness in China this winter.
Both SARS and MERS are classified as zoonotic viral diseases, meaning the first patients who were infected acquired these viruses directly from animals. This was possible because while in the animal host, the virus had acquired a series of genetic mutations that allowed it to infect and multiply inside humans.
Now, these viruses can be transmitted from person to person. Field studies have revealed that the original source of SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV is the bat and that the masked palm civets (a mammal native to Asia and Africa) and camels, respectively, served as intermediate hosts between bats and humans.
If you were wondering (I was trying NOT to) it turns out that snakes often hunt for bats in the wild. But the thing that has most mystified the scientists about this possibility is how the virus could adapt to both the cold-blooded and warm-blooded hosts.
Experts further advise as a precaution “people should limit the consumption of wild animals to prevent zoonotic infections.”
Not a problem here, Chief.
Richard A. Lee is the author of the technothriller “HIGH GROUND”