Coronavirus outbreak: How worried should we be?

A health official scans the body temperature of a passenger as she arrives at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia Credit: Tatan Syuflana/AP

As the death toll from the new coronavirus climbs, questions remain about how it spread to humans and how much of a threat it poses across the world.

The latest figures reported on Sunday morning cover the previous 24 hours and mark an increase of 15 deaths to 56 in total, and 688 cases for a total of 1,975 infections.

Cases have also been found in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the US, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France, Australia and Canada.

At least 52 people have been tested for the coronavirus in the UK and although no cases have yet been confirmed, how worried should we be in the UK?

– How does this compare with previous outbreaks?

Several experts say the new coronavirus appears to be less severe than its predecessors.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said typical flu epidemics can kill tens of thousands of people, but that previous new coronavirus outbreaks have led to fewer deaths.

For example, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) killed about 800 people, while Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) led to about 450 deaths.

Prof Hunter said: “This new strain seems to be rather less lethal than the previous two outbreaks, however this could still change.

“All new outbreaks are worrying, especially in the early weeks when it is not clear how the outbreak could progress.

“I think it unlikely that the Wuhan coronavirus will cause a major public health issue in the UK, in large part because of our existing health system.”

US researchers writing in the journal JAMA also said the fatality rate appears to be lower than that of Sars or Mers.

Catharine Paules and colleagues wrote: “The extent, if any, to which such transmission might lead to a sustained epidemic remains an open and critical question.”

– How easily can it be transmitted?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday it was “too early” to declare a public health emergency of international concern.

China's health minister Ma Xiaowei said the ability of the virus to spread is getting stronger and accelerating, and that the disease is infectious before symptoms start to show.

Mr Ma added that the disease is spreading faster than the SARS virus which originated in China and killed more than 800 people in 2002.

– What is the risk to the UK?

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has revised the risk to the UK population from very low to low.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK is one of the first countries to develop a test for coronavirus and the NHS is ready to respond to any cases.

Diggers are starting work on a new hospital to treat patients. Credit: AP

He added: “The public can be assured that the whole of the UK is always well prepared for these type of outbreaks and we will remain vigilant and keep our response under constant review in light of emerging scientific evidence.”

The Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to Wuhan, but has not changed its advice on other destinations which have reported cases.

– Could cases be confirmed in the UK?

A number of cases have been diagnosed in countries across the world, but none yet in the UK.

Cases have been found in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the US, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Nepal, France, Australia and Canada.

Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the Medical Research Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said the UK is not a major destination of visitors travelling out of Wuhan.

But, he said: “Border screening and in this case, in the UK, alerting the health system, is not 100% foolproof – there could be a mild case.”

In addition, the screening will only catch people already showing symptoms.

Dr Nathalie MacDermott, NIHR academic clinical lecturer, King’s College London, said: “It is wise to implement checks at this stage given the evidence on increasing spread of the virus to other countries and across continents, but largely for the purpose of being in contact with travellers from affected regions in case they become unwell.

“If they were to be unwell at the airport or become unwell in the future it will allow more prompt isolation and testing of the patient, with appropriate tracing of any people the patient may have been in contact with.

“This will hopefully limit the amount of people the person may have contact with while unwell and so limit the spread of the virus.”