While the first cases of coronavirus 2019-nCoV were reported in China, the virus has now spread to at least 23 countries, including Australia.
All confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV have so far been linked to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, leading China to impose severe internal travel restrictions on local residents in an attempt to limit its spread.
All reported deaths have occurred in China, with the exception of one man who died in the Philippines on February 2, just weeks after he had left his hometown of Wuhan.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the 2019-nCoV outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, though it has emphasised that global trade and travel restrictions are not needed.
But it seems the only thing spreading faster than 2019-nCoV is racism, especially in Australia.
The Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph’s front page headline “Chinese Virus Pandamonium” is just one of many examples of how the media is using the outbreak to stoke racism.
Speaking to The Guardian on February 2, a British-Chinese national said: “The virus is being weaponised as a way to be openly racist — the French media have already called it ‘yellow peril’.”
Some countries, including Australia, have closed their borders to almost everyone except Australian citizens entering from China. Those who do arrive in Australia have their visas cancelled and are put in quarantine on Christmas Island.
All of this has contributed to a spike in racism against Chinese-Australians and Chinese people in Australia.
Western media and governments have been building a campaign against China because of its rising economic and political influence, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. 2019-nCoV has become a useful tool in this battle.
But let us examine the facts.
According to WHO, coronaviruses are from a large family of viruses that have led to illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. There are several different coronaviruses that can be group into four types: alpha, beta, gamma and delta. The common cold can be caused by alpha and beta coronaviruses.
2019-nCoV, a new strain of coronavirus not previously identified in humans, is in the beta group. Because it is a virus and not a bacteria, antibiotics cannot treat the infection. Instead, a specific vaccine is required.
Coronaviruses can be transmitted between animals and people via physical contact, much like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was in 2002–03 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. More coronaviruses in animals are likely to be identified as surveillance improves around the world.
The first cases were discovered in December in Wuhan, in a food market where meats, poultry and fish, as well as live reptiles and wild game, were sold. Chinese national authorities alerted WHO of a viral outbreak on December 31 and closed the market on January 1.
About 10 days after the market was closed, the first victim died: a 61-year-old man who was chronically ill and whose wife developed symptoms five days later. She had never visited the market, indicating human-to-human transmission.
2019-nCoV is generally transmitted through close contact with an infected patient. A key factor influencing transmission is whether the virus can spread in the absence of symptoms — either in the days before they appear or in people who never get sick.
Common symptoms include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, many of which can be treated. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or death.
2019-nCoV is less virulent than SARS, which had a 10% fatality rate and killed nearly 650 people in China and Hong Kong.
However, 2019-nCoV is more infectious, having been transmitted to at least 20,000 people as of February 4, compared with SARS, which took 8 months to infect 8000 people.
To date, 2019-nCoV has caused severe respiratory symptoms in 16–20% of patients and has a fatality rate of 2–3%, with a death toll in China of 425.
For comparison, seasonal influenza has a mortality rate below 0.1%, but infects many more people and causes about 400,000 deaths each year. The 2009 flu pandemic in the United States, caused by the spread of a novel strain of the A/H1N1 virus, commonly referred to as swine flu, infected 59 million US citizens, leading to 265,000 hospitalisations and 12,000 deaths.
Evidently, the Western media’s response to 2019-nCoV is alarmist.
The Chinese government has learnt from the SARS epidemic and is doing everything possible to control the spread of the disease. Unlike during the SARS epidemic, Chinese scientists have published the genetic sequence of 2019-nCoV to enable easier diagnosis in all laboratories.
The Chinese government also built two new hospitals in Wuhan within two weeks.
A crash program to develop a vaccine is under way under the auspices of the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. Scientists from The Doherty Institute in Melbourne have successfully grown the virus from a patient sample, the first time outside of China, an achievement that will hopefully speed up the development of a vaccine.
Governments should aid these efforts and carry out best practice measures to prevent the further spread of 2019-nCoV, rather than demonise China and whip up racism for nothing more than political gain.