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In Depth | Coronavirus: The spread, the danger, the symptoms — and the social cost

As the World Health Organisation declares coronavirus a 'global health emergency', here's what we know about the disease so far, and what can be done to protect against it

January 31, 2020 / 03:39 PM IST
Representative image

Representative image

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on January 31 declared coronavirus a "global health emergency".

This came hours after India registered its first case of the deadly virus on January 30, with a student who had reportedly returned from Wuhan in China having been diagnosed with the disease. Although after the news broke, officials in Kerala sought to clear that the student, who was studying in Wuhan University, is stable and that there is no need to panic, the fact that coronavirus has entered India caused alarm.

And for good reason. The disease has reportedly now spread from China to countries across the length and breadth of the world, with cases being reported from Canada to Philippines and Japan to France.

Naturally, airports across the world have now begun screening passengers, particularly those that come from the countries affected; on their part, passengers and citizens have started wearing face masks. Meanwhile, Russia has closed its border with China and has halted e-visas for Chinese nationals.

All this makes it sound as if this is a part of an apocalyptic movie, but it isn't that bad — yet.


COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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So, what is this disease and why is it so dangerous?

With over 200 deaths reported and more than 9,000 confirmed cases as of January 29, China has become the epicenter of what is turning out to be a health emergency that is quickly spreading to other parts of the world.

Seven different coronavirsus, that scientists know of, can infect people and make them sick, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It began in China's Wuhan area, which has been under a lockdown ever since. The outbreak, identified sometime late last year, has been linked to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting a possible zoonotic origin to the outbreak, meaning that they can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Some reports have suggested that the virus came through snakes, and others have said that it, in fact, came via bats.

This virus has also alarmed experts because of its connection to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which, during the period from 2002-03, had killed around 650 people across China and Hong Kong. Then, too, reports suggest that the circumstances and the response from China's communist authorities were similar: the secrecy and the downplaying that eventually cost the citizens their lives.

A man wears a face mask as he shops for decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat, at a market in Fuyang in central China's Anhui Province. China closed off a city of more than 11 million people Thursday in an unprecedented effort to try to contain a deadly new viral illness that has sickened hundreds and spread to other cities and countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush. (Image: Associated Press)

A man wears a face mask as he shops for decorations for the upcoming Lunar New Year, the Year of the Rat, at a market in Fuyang in central China's Anhui Province. China closed off a city of more than 11 million people in an unprecedented effort to try to contain a deadly new viral illness that has sickened hundreds and spread to other cities and countries in the Lunar New Year travel rush. (Image: Associated Press)

This time, however, things are different— and that partially answers our second question. Unlike SARS, for instance, this virus can be contracted without having visited the city, which means that it can travel. This is particularly distressing because of the travel that entails the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is reportedly the largest annual human migration.

However, it is also too early to say just how dangerous the new virus is and how easily it spreads between people. And because it is new, humans have not been able to build any immunity to it.

What has China done to curb it?

For starters, the Chinese have put Wuhan, the place of origin of the virus, in a lockdown. Reports suggest that while those who wish to, can go in, but they cannot come out because of the fear of spreading the virus. This has effectively turned Wuhan into a ghost town.

In the past, China has made major breakthroughs in responding to infectious diseases including establishing a system for the early detection of 300 known pathogens and the screening, identifying and detection of unknown pathogens, China's Ministry of Science and Technology had said highlighting China's ability to cope up with the new virus.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million, is under severe travel restrictions, with urban transport shut and outgoing flights suspended.


China has advised people to avoid crowds and 10 cities in the central province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located, have suspended some transport, the Hubei Daily reported.

Beijing has closed tourist access to the Forbidden City and cancelled large gatherings, including two Lunar New Year temple fairs, and closed part of the Great Wall.

Walt Disney Co's Shanghai Disney Resort has also been closed down.

China's central bank is temporarily raising the upper limit on small bank batch payments to 500 million yuan ($72.42 million) until Jan. 30, to ease fund transfers.

The China Development Bank has also granted a 2 billion yuan ($290 million) emergency loan to Wuhan.

Wait, you said an Indian student was studying in Wuhan. Are there more Indians there?

Yes, according to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), there are over 600 Indians in the region, and naturally, they are all stranded because of the lockdown imposed by the Chinese authorities.

According to reports, they are worried about everyday resources going out of stock, the long queues for vegetables and the possibility of an evacuation.

So then what is the Indian government doing? Is evacuation on cards?

Evacuation does seem to be coming. The MEA announced that it would be sending Air India flights to carry the Indians in Wuhan out, with the first flight expected to fly to the region on January 31.

"We have begun the process to prepare for evacuation of Indian nationals affected by the situation arising out of Corona-2019 virus outbreak in Hubei Province, China," MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in a tweet, referring to the province of which Wuhan is the capital.

"Our Embassy of India in Beijing is working out the logistics & is in touch with the Chinese govt. authorities and our nationals on this matter. We will continue to share updates," Kumar further said.

He had added during his media briefing that the Indian authorities are in touch with the over 600 Indians across the province, "and are individually ascertaining their willingness to be repatriated".

Image: Reuters

While there were initial reports of the Chinese authorities delaying the evacuation process, an Economic Times report says that they appear to have softened their stance on India's request.

"The Chinese side pays close attention to the report of the emergence of one confirmed case of pneumonia caused by the novel Coronavirus in India, and will cooperate with the Indian side to jointly strengthen the epidemic prevention and control," Chinese Embassy spokesperson Ji Rong said, adding that they are "willing to continue to maintain close communication with the Indian side" and "provide necessary assistance convenience to ensure the health and safety of Indian citizens in China".

Now that the virus has entered India, what are the symptoms and the necessary measures that are being taken?

Initial symptoms of the novel (new) coronavirus include fever, cough, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath.

For those with a weakened immune system, the elderly and the very young, there's a chance the virus could cause a lower, and much more serious, respiratory tract illness like pneumonia or bronchitis, says CDC.

The government, on its part, has released a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and a 24*7 helpline has been set up by the government at the National Centre for Disease Control in New Delhi to respond to queries related to the disease.

The Centre has said that it is closely monitoring the situation and has the assurance that all the states have a basic level of preparedness to deal with the viral infection.

Those districts of Bihar that border Nepal, where the virus has been detected, are already under surveillance while monitoring is also on in Rajasthan. The Kerala government, meanwhile, has said that it is taking all preventive measures and if any positive cases do occur, they will be shifted to isolation wards.

And what measures should I take to prevent the virus from infecting me?

Since no vaccines are available yet, the only way to prevent oneself from being infected is by limiting exposure to the virus. One can postpone all non-essential plans to travel to China or any other affected country.

Maintain personal hygiene – wash your hands with soap frequently, sanitise, cover your mouth while coughing or sneezing.

If you do happen to come in close contact with an infected person, monitor your health constantly for the next 28 days and check if you are developing any of the symptoms. If you have a fever or breathing trouble, visit the nearest clinic without any delay.

Where else has the virus been detected? Should I cancel my plans to go to that country?

Dozens of cases have been confirmed in other countries across Asia-Pacific, including the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sri Lanka and Thailand, among others.

All these countries are taking different preventive measures to contain the spread, including isolation and increased surveillance.

While the government has issued advisory asking people to avoid travelling to China, it hasn't officially said anything about the other countries, where, however, the standard safety guidelines apply.

Coronavirus: the social cost

Even as the virus has spread, reports suggest that so has bias and fear against the Chinese population. According to reports, while some countries have halted flights from China, schools in Europe have started uninviting Chinese exchange students.

According to a report by Bloomberg, people of Asian appearance around the world have said that they have been subjected to wariness since the disease began spreading.

In South Korea, in fact, according to the report, signs saying "no Chinese allowed" have been seen, while a Korean casino said that it is no longer accepting Chinese tourists.

The challenge, according to analysts, is to safeguard public health of population across the world without discriminating against the people from China.


Atharva Pandit
first published: Jan 31, 2020 03:39 pm
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