This graphic illustrates how a virus could be carried to different countries by people travelling on international flights (Image: Metro)

Humanity’s ability to treat diseases has increased dramatically in the modern era – but so has our ability to spread them.

Now fears of an imminent global pandemic are growing after the outbreak of a new type of coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The bug has already travelled beyond China’s borders, probably carried by unwitting travellers travelling on regional or long-distance flights.

At the time of writing, 14 people in the UK have been tested for the virus, with five given the all-clear and nine still awaiting results. Meanwhile, the official death toll in China has risen to 26 with more than 830 confirmed cases.

Other cases have been reported in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the US and Vietnam.

China is now battling to stop the outbreak from becoming a pandemic, effectively quarantining more than 35 million people by placing Wuhan and 12 other cities on lockdown.

However, these sweeping measures may not be enough to stop the disease literally going viral across the planet.

And if it does, we might witness death on an epic scale. Last year, one study about a fictional coronavirus pandemic claimed 65 million people could die within 18 months.

A man wearing a face mask walks past a Coronavirus notice at Heathrow Airport in London (Source: EPA)

Dr Alexandra Woodacre, senior lecturer in molecular bioscience at the University of Northampton, told Metro: ‘A disease becomes a pandemic when rates of infection are at a significantly higher level than expected and when the spread of the disease also covers multiple geographical regions of the world.’

The modern world offers us all sorts of ways to tackle the disease, but also helps viruses to spread across the world at unprecedented speed.

‘As modern transport methods like cheap air travel become more accessible and popular, it has also become more likely that outbreaks of disease will spread to multiple places when the people who are infected travel around,’ Dr Woodacre added.

‘Public health bodies like the World Health Organisation are constantly monitoring cases of disease so that they can spot any sudden changes or increases in order to put into place measures like quarantine as fast as possible.

‘As monitoring and testing methods have developed and become faster and more accurate, the response time has also become faster.’

On Wednesday, a report from Imperial University’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis estimated that 4,000 people in Wuhan had caught the coronavirus and suffered symptoms by January 18th.

The city’s airport has a catchment area of 19 million people and carries 3,301 passengers per day to foreign countries, the study found, meaning there’s a clear chance of the bug spreading to other nations.

Doctors s perform medical treatment on a patient in Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University (Provider: Xinhua/ REX)

Although it’s not known whether the coronavirus will become a global pandemic, the authors think this is a possibility.

‘It is likely that the outbreak of a [new] coronavirus in Wuhan has caused substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than have currently been detected and reported,’ they wrote.

‘Recent reports and past experience with [other diseases like] SARS and MERS-CoV outbreaks of similar scale suggests currently self-sustaining human-to-human transmission should not be ruled out. Given this evidence for human-to-human transmission, enhancing rapid case detection will be essential if the outbreak is to be controlled.’

While the majority of deaths in China have been older patients, a 36-year-old man in Hubei was admitted to hospital earlier this month after suffering from fever for three days. He died following a sudden cardiac arrest on January 23.

Initial symptoms of the virus can mirror those of the cold and flu, including cough, fever, chest tightening and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.

The coronavirus family includes the common cold as well as viruses that cause more serious illnesses, such as Sars and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is thought to have originated from camels.

The Wuhan outbreak is suspected to have begun from wild animals sold at a food market in the city, which has now been closed for further investigation.

It’s unlikely other nations would be able to simply shut down cities like the Chinese communist government due to civil liberties concerns, meaning the virus could spread more quickly if it escapes overseas.

There is some doubt about official Chinese statistics about the number of people infected with the coronavirus, particularly because it once covered up the extent of SARS at the beginning of an outbreak which killed 774 people in 17 countries.

China’s cabinet, the State Council, has promised to collect information on government departments that have failed in their response to the new outbreak, including officials who have caused ‘delays, concealment and under-reporting of the epidemic’.

Dr Jeremy Rossman, a virologist at the University of Kent’s School of Biosciences, played down the risk of a pandemic.

He told Metro: ‘The outbreak began on 29 December 2019 in Wuhan, China with the first cases being four employees of the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

‘Almost all of the initial cases were linked directly to the seafood market, but at present only 50% of the cases had contact with the market or with someone who did, this suggests that the outbreak is spreading by person-to-person transmission, which has been recently confirmed; however, the mode of transmission is not known at present, it may be airborne as other coronaviruses, but this is not known.

‘Regardless of the mode of transmission, at present the virus does not appear to transmit very easily from person-to-person, though this may change as the virus evolves.

‘With the Lunar New Year’s week of celebrations approaching today there is concern that further person-to-person transmission will occur. To combat this, China has quarantined Wuhan and several other nearby cities, blocking travel into and out of the city, while also closing many social gathering places such as movie theatres. Many Lunar New Year events throughout China have also been cancelled.

‘Despite these efforts, it is likely that the virus will continue to spread with rapid increases in case numbers likely over the coming days and weeks.

‘However, it remains unclear if the disease will keep to its current low fatality rate and low incidence of person-to-person spread or whether the virus will adapt, as has been seen before.

‘As these risks are still unknown at present, the World Health Organization has not declared this outbreak to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern at present, but instead emphasised the need for continual surveillance and regular re-evaluation of the situation.’

He added: ‘At this point, the chances of an outbreak in the UK remain small.’

To keep yourself safe, you should keep an eye out for symptoms and avoid anyone who’s caught the coronavirus.

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Dr Diana Gall, a GP with the online health service Doctor-4-U, told Metro: ‘Viruses such as the coronavirus spread through droplets that are in the air when a person sneezes or coughs, or through close contact with an infected person.

‘Public transport makes this a lot easier for viruses to travel, with so many people congregating together, diseases are likely to spread around the country and even globally. Coughing and sneezing in close proximity on buses and trains, touching surfaces such as handrails that are contaminated spreads the virus from person to person.

‘Planes are a large factor in the spread of diseases globally, as lots of people travel to all parts of the world there is a risk of picking up diseases in a particular country and spreading it to another.

‘Modern transport is fast which means that viruses can spread around the world within weeks. This is why it’s important to act fast when outbreaks occur by using modern quarantine methods to stop the travel of diseases. Isolation separates those who are infected from the rest of the public until they are completely treated and well again.

‘Quarantine helps stop those who have been exposed to the virus from travelling or being around other people, even if they’re not yet sick. This all helps to reduce a potentially fatal outbreak.





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