Coronavirus – how worried should you be?

Was I dreaming? Or had I been magically transported to some dystopian future?

An entire army of partially faceless people was walking around me. Their voices were often muffled and all I could see were their glistening eyes. Everything else about their face was a mystery.

This was the haunting scene at KLIA 2 where I found myself recently. Almost everyone around me was wearing face masks in an effort to protect themselves from the new coronavirus that has had a stranglehold on our nation’s attention.

I knew the new coronavirus was on everyone’s radar but I did not expect so many people to be this vigilant about it.

And now I expect even more heightened awareness because a Malaysian, for the first time, tested positive for the virus just yesterday.

Scary news like this has ensured the new coronavirus’ maintains its tyrannical hold on Malaysians’ minds. Even national politics has taken a back seat, which is an incredibly rare occurrence.

With the media bludgeoning us with a constant barrage of news about the latest developments on the coronavirus, it can be easy to get carried away with the near-hysteria.

Don’t be alarmed.

We need to understand that the public frenzy about the new coronavirus is advantageous to some, including pharmaceuticals and companies selling health-related products. It’s important to evaluate the potential motives of all the parties that stand to gain from this unfortunate situation.

In addition, we humans are easily captivated by novelty and are startlingly poor at assessing risk. We are more fearful of terrorist attacks that claim a few hundred lives in most countries than of road accidents that kill about 1.25 million people annually.

For these reasons, it’s crucial that we bring some cold, hard facts into the conversation so we can have an accurate picture of the issue. And the best way to do that is by comparing it to other epidemics that have afflicted us in the near past, as in the table below:

Note: Numbers above are as of 6pm on Feb 4, 2020.

Once we take a look at the numbers, we gain some much-needed perspective. Out of the 20,438 infected by the novel coronavirus (as at 6pm yesterday), 425 have perished – 414 of them in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak. This puts the new coronavirus’ fatality rate at a fairly low 2%, meaning that an overwhelming majority of those who contract it live to tell the tale.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said recently: “When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there’s just no comparison. Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison. The risk is trivial.”

I wouldn’t be so optimistic. Sure, it’s got a low fatality rate but that’s not the only metric that matters. A metric that’s often overlooked is the incubation period of the virus. The new coronavirus has a worryingly long incubation period – approximately double that of SARS and triple that of the swine flu and seasonal flu. This means that a person who is infected might be screened for it and released as he/she might not be displaying symptoms for up to two weeks.

This makes containing the spread notoriously difficult. History is replete with examples of viruses that were far deadlier than the current coronavirus but had shorter incubation periods. This results in the virus killing the host before he/she can infect others. This stops the virus dead in its tracks, making it a victim of its own success – a success at being deadly.

The new coronavirus’ cousin, SARS, had a fatality rate that was four times higher. However, due in part to its shorter incubation period, it took SARS 9 months to infect more than 8,000 people. The new coronavirus took less than 2 months to infect the same number of people.

The number of people infected by each sick person, or reproductive number (RO) is fluid at the moment, with different studies giving different figures. Most initial studies estimated the RO to be between 2 and 3. A new study, published on Jan 30, estimates the RO at between 2.24 to 3.58. Another study, published in the respected Lancet, estimates the RO at 2.68.

However, it’s not all gloom and doom.

According to experts, most of those who have died from the virus were either elderly or had underlying health issues such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease that compromised their immune system. Unofficial data show that of the initial 41 deaths, 39 were over 50 years old.

So the chances of a healthy, younger person succumbing to the virus is considerably lower than the 2% fatality rate. Interestingly enough, a whopping 71% of all those who were infected were men, according to an initial study.

In addition, of the 185 people or so outside mainland China who have been infected, only two have died. And even these were Chinese nationals traveling from Wuhan. This means that the fatality rate outside China is a paltry 1.1%, around half the fatality rate in China. And if you count non-Chinese nationals, the fatality rate drops to 0%.

This might not last long but the fact that most countries the virus has travelled to are on high-alert and hyper-vigilant gives me hope that the virus will be largely contained outside China.

So should you be worried?

It’s always a good idea to listen to the health authorities and take all necessary precautions as per their advice. But if you don’t live in China and are an adult (especially a woman) without any pre-existing medical condition, odds are you’ll be able to fight off the infection in the unlikely chance that you do contract it.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.