How science is dealing with the outbreak of coronavirus

Image: RTÉ Brainstom
Feb 06 2020 Posted: 10:19 GMT

Author: Professor Lokesh Joshi, Vice-President for Research

Analysis: the severity of disease-causing viruses like this varies depending on the health or immune status of infected people

The current coronavirus crisis started in December 2019. A number of people with viral pneumonia were found to be infected with a new coronavirus and the source of infection was traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, a Chinese city with a population of 11 million people. This new type of coronavirus has not been previously know and has been given the name 2019-nCoV (Wuhan coronavirus).

Coronaviruses are common in nature and are a broad family of viruses that exist mainly in animal populations with only six coronaviruses are known to ever have infected humans. The most well-known outbreak of Coronavirus was recorded in November 2002 and was called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). It originated in China's Guangdong province and affected over 8,000 people in 17 countries, with the outbreak peaking in April and May 2003.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Fidelma Fitzpatrick from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland discusses the coronavirus outbreak

Epidemiologists soon found out that a large proportion of these SARS cases occurred in hospitals (21% involved healthcare workers) and that air travel was a major component in spreading the disease. Appropriate infection control measures, including use of personal protective equipment, personal hygiene, travel warnings, airport screening, area isolation and personal quarantines were introduced globally. SARS was declared over after a period of 18 months and caused 774 deaths.

While the SARS outbreak was quite dramatic and there was concern that mortality rates would be much higher, the reality is that in our everyday lives we are exposed to many kinds of bacteria and viruses, but most do not result in any disease. The severity of disease causing viruses varies depending on the type of virus and the health or immune status of infected people.

One of the most dangerous and unpredictable class of viruses are called zoonotics, which are those that can pass from animals to humans by mutating and gaining ability to change within the host. SARS and the Wuhan coronavirus are both zoonotic viruses that usually reside in animals and have mutated to allow them to infect other species including humans. These viruses can potentially result in a high rate of mortality and are therefore a cause for serious concern.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Kildare native Ben Kavanagh talks about life in Wuhan at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak

Science these days reacts fast to new health crises. The gene sequence of Wuhan coronavirus 2019-nCoV was discovered and published within four weeks of its first detection as a new disease. The genome sequence of the Wuhan coronavirus shows that it is closely related to SARS-CoV. In both cases, a change in its surface glycoprotein (carbohydrates attached to surface proteins) allows the mutated form to jump from animal to human host. This change in glycoprotein is the key to the attachment and entry to the human cells to initiate the infection process. This change in viral surface glycoprotein could also be the key to curbing transmission of this virus.

So far, there have been nearly 6,000 confirmed cases with Wuhan coronavirus with 132 fatalities. The epicentre of this viral infection is in Hubei province and in neighbouring areas where 15 cities with approximately 60 million people have been in full or partial lockdown in an attempt to reduce the disease spread.

The initial symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus is similar to cold or flu viruses, such as cough, fever and shortness of the breath. In many cases, these are mild symptoms and many people recover without the need for hospitalisation. But in some cases, Wuhan coronavirus 2019-nCoV can lead to viral pneumonia and organ failure which requires professional care in a hospital setting and in some cases is fatal. It seems that older people with poor immune systems or those with other underlying health conditions are amongst the more severe cases. Although there have been some younger fatalities, the virus does not seem to cause severe cases of viral pneumonia among young and otherwise healthy people.  

From RTÉ 1's Six One News, a report on how China is "confident" of defeating coronavirus

Wuhan coronavirus appears to be capable of transferring from human-to-human and the recent news reports suggest that it can be transmitted even before the symptoms of the infection appear in infected individuals. If this is the case, the carriers of this virus may not realise that they are infected before they pass it on to others, which could turn this virus into a serious killer.

It is advised that people who are in the areas where there is Wuhan coronavirus infection should use hand-sanitation, wipes and masks to protect themselves from infection and others from getting infected. However, it is important to recognise that since air flows in and around the masks, most masks only do a little to reduce infection rates (although they do reduce the number of times people touch their faces). Most of the masks worn by people as seen on TV and in online news are not effective except that they give a sense of safety. They do not prevent most of the viruses going in and out of mouth and nose and they do not protect eyes. Frequent handwashing is likely to be among the most important way to reduce infection.

Although this new coronavirus has the potential to spread widely and cause fatalities, a sense of perspective is useful. SARS epidemic caused global panic in 2002-2003 and resulted in 10% fatalities. In contrast, the Western African Ebola virus epidemic (2013–2016) killed 11,323 people and caused 40% fatalities. So far, the number of fatalities with Wuhan coronavirus have been relatively low and hopefully will remain so.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show, John Cuddihy, Director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, on the coronavirus

Aquila Bioscience at NUI Galway has developed a cellulose based material for wipes and masks that is specifically designed to capture microbes (viruses, bacteria and fungi) and trap them inside the material so to reduce transmission of the pathogen, in this case Wuhan coronavirus. This emerging Irish innovation can be used as prophylaxis and has the potential to help combat the coronavirus crisis by reducing the rate of infection.

It is too early yet to predict the full impact of the new coronoavisus epidemic on human populations in China and globally. The local agencies in China, global agencies such as WHO and health authorities around the world are collaborating in their attempt to halt the spread of the virus to protect people and to keep the number of fatalities as low as possible.


Marketing and Communications Office