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Infectious Diseases

Updated 13 March 2020

Coronavirus actually more contagious than data shows

New research shows that the Wuhan coronavirus has already mutated to a stronger version that can spread more easily among people.

To date, the novel coronavirus has spread to several countries, the death toll has risen to 490, and it has been declared a global medical emergency by the World Health Organization.

While authorities are doing everything they can to contain this new strain of coronavirus, including researching possible vaccines, infectious disease experts and scientists say that the new coronavirus may be even more contagious than current data is showing.

Spreading rapidly

According to a report on CNBC, the virus has spread from 300 cases to about 21 000.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies programme stated at a news conference last week that the rapid spread of the virus is concerning.

Chinese scientists believe that the current strain of the virus has already mutated to adapt to its human host and to spread far more quickly than the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

Also read: 5 things you need to know about the latest strain of coronavirus

Spreading without symptoms

Even though it is known that this strain of coronavirus can spread from one human to another through sneezing, coughing and surface germs, the illness spreads before symptoms even start  to show – and the incubation period for the Wuhan coronavirus can be anything from two to 21 days, according to the WHO.

The spreading also happens when people are in close proximity to each other (up to 2m). Therefore it’s likely that the virus can spread quickly in densely populated urban settings, on public transport and on planes.

Usually, with other viruses, they are at their most contagious when a person displays symptoms. This strain of coronavirus is, however, different as there are reports of it spreading where there were no symptoms, stated the WHO.

The science behind how a virus spreads

But what makes a virus so contagious? This is usually calculated by using a formula called R naught – which shows how many people will get sick from each infected person.

In the case of the coronavirus, the R naught has been calculated as 2.2. This means that for every infected person, at least two or more people will also catch it, according to a report from the New England Journal of Medicine.

Right now, the R naught of the new virus might be lower than what that of SARS in 2003 (between two and five), but it may take months before the real R naught value can be determined.

What is currently being done to curb the contamination?

The WHO has declared the Wuhan coronavirus a global health emergency. This means that even more combined efforts from countries will take place to help contain spreading.

Right now, quarantine measures are being put into place, several airports have screening processes and some airlines have cancelled flights to and from China.

The WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan stated that the virus appears to be spreading relatively easily from person to person, but the outbreak can be “slowed using adequate safeguards in communities and in hospitals”.

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