Germ warfare

China battles to contain the coronavirus outbreak


Work in progress: a new hospital in Wuhan targeted to be built in six days

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated last week that there have been at least 15 million flu cases in the United States since September, leading to 140,000 hospitalisations and 8,200 deaths (the figures were based on a mathematical model). American health experts also warned this month that the current influenza season could be just as deadly as the 2017-2018 one, when 61,000 flu-related deaths were recorded in the US.

The warning prompted The Hill, a newspaper that focuses on Washington politics, to compare the potential death toll with that of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, which had claimed 213 lives in China as of Thursday.

“Coronavirus is spreading but the flu is a greater threat to Americans,” it suggested, noting that there have been six reported cases of the Chinese virus so far in the US. “But still, the flu rarely gets the sort of headlines an outbreak like the coronavirus does, despite killing more Americans each year than any other virus, and Americans do not seem to be particularly worried [about influenza],” it concluded.

In China itself – facing the worst outbreak of pneumonia since the spread of SARS in late 2002 and early 2003 – the American flu statistics seem to have offered a strange sense of comfort. Many Chinese internet users, Phoenix TV noted, have been wondering whether “American influenza” is actually deadlier than the coronavirus that first emerged in Hubei province last month.

In Taiwan, the outspoken TV host Chao Shao-kang even questioned whether the island’s government should ban visitors from the US in the same way that it is restricting inflows from mainland China.

Remarks like this prompted stern rebuffs, however. “Are you [Chao] saying that there is nothing to fear from the pneumonia because far more people die from car crashes every year?” a columnist asked in Taiwan’s Liberty Times.

So far seven types of coronavirus have been identified as zoonotic, including SARS, MERS (which plagued Middle Eastern countries in 2015) and the latest Wuhan iteration. That means they can jump from animals to humans, bringing respiratory complications such as pneumonia and death.

The latest coronavirus has been spreading more quickly than SARS. According to figures from the World Health Organisation, the SARS outbreak resulted in 774 deaths from 8,098 confirmed cases worldwide, which equated to a 9.5% fatality rate. Most of the cases were reported in mainland China and Hong Kong between November 2002 and July 2003.

The Wuhan virus is moving much faster. The first 41 cases were confirmed by the Chinese government in late December, but since then the number of cases in China has spiked rapidly – to 9,000 as of Thursday.

That means that the Wuhan coronavirus has infected more people in two months than the entirety of cases during the SARS outbreak, which lasted for more than six months.

Some medical experts see this almost as a positive, noting that less deadly strains of virus typically spread faster – an implication is that the Wuhan coronavirus isn’t likely to be as life-threatening to the average person as SARS was (save for unexpected mutations). Yet Phoenix News made the point that the fatality rate for the Wuhan strain is still much higher than for the flu (based on the latest figures from the CDC, only 0.05% of influenza patients in the US are dying).

The latest edition of the Lancet medical journal revealed that of the 41 earliest confirmed cases in Wuhan, six patients had already passed away. This equated to an initial fatality rate as high as 15%.

The WHO ruled yesterday the Wuhan outbreak should be classed as a global health emergency. Earlier in the week Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters that the overall fatality rate of known cases in China (so far) was about 2%. But given that thousands of patients are still being treated, it may be too “early to make any conclusive statements” about the mortality rate, Maria Van Kerkhove, head of emerging diseases and zoonosis at the WHO, added.

Attention has also focused on the effectiveness of China’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Local newspapers have talked about the unprecedented quarantining of 60 million people in Wuhan and its surrounding cities, for instance, and President Xi Jinping elevated the campaign to something approaching a wartime footing on Tuesday when he referred to the nation being engaged in a “serious battle”.

The military theme was reinforced by the China Daily’s front page yesterday, which drew attention to the role of the armed forces in the struggle to protect the people, under the headline: “Xi: PLA must play key role against virus”.

Xi’s directives have not gone unnoticed by corporate China. Nearly every major company – state-owned and private sector alike – have made donations or contributions to fighting the outbreak this week. Internet giant Alibaba, for instance, has stepped up efforts to improve the availability of surgical masks on its e-commerce platforms and promised that they will be sold at stable prices (on Wednesday company founder Jack Ma also donated $14.5 million from his own foundation to fund research into the virus).

The army of delivery drivers employed by major couriers such as YTO is also working overtime to ensure that people locked down in their homes get the supplies they have ordered online from the likes of Taobao and

Teams of medical staffers from hospitals across the nation have volunteered to go to Wuhan and other quarantined cities, and online healthcare firms such as Ping An’s Good Doctor are offering free medical consultations in a bid to relieve the pressure on public hospitals.

In the most visible sign of action a new hospital is under construction in Wuhan that’s set for completion in just six days. It will add 1,600 beds to treat patients. Similarly designated coronavirus hospitals could be just as speedily built elsewhere, CCTV reported. The state broadcaster has been showing around-the-clock video of the “construction miracle” in Wuhan to boost the morale of people directly affected by the outbreak, it said.

So far the mood among locals in locked-down cities appears to be holding up. Videos of residents hanging out of their windows and shouting “Wuhan add oil” have been posted on social media (‘add oil’ is a common motivational chant in Chinese). The same hashtag has gone viral across the country as other cities show their support.

But the coverage cannot erode the impression of a city under siege and the political pressure is increasing on Xi and his leadership team to win the ‘battle’ with the virus that he proclaimed this week.

In an added precaution the government has extended the Spring Festival holiday period for three more days to February 2 (and some companies have told people not to return to work until February 10 in the hope that the worst of the contagion will have passed).

According to healthcare experts, the two-week period after February 2 (when the mass migration on the country’s transportation networks typically ends) will be watched closely for signals that the number of confirmed cases is topping out.

While the government is spending heavily on containing the coronavirus, others are starting to count the potential costs of the outbreak. For a start, it has wreaked havoc on the Chinese New Year holiday season, a period when consumers spent more than Rmb1 trillion ($145 billion) on shopping, dining, entertainment and travel last year, says state news agency Xinhua. Policymakers will also be worried that the disruption could bring down GDP growth below the declared goal of 6% for the year.

And that’s going to reverberate across the global economy too: at the time of the SARS outbreak in 2003, China accounted for about 4% of global output. Now its share is 16%, according to the World Bank.

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