While alarming Big Issues like stray meteorites unsuccessfully raining death on remote Russian villages and trigger-happy North Korean dictators might seem like the crises nudging us to the brink of catastrophe, there's always something less spectacular and arguably more dangerous rearing its head in the world of diseases and viruses. The most recent of those is a new strain of coronavirus, a deadly virus that gets its name from the crown-like spikes on its surface rather than an ill-advised sponsorship deal from a Mexican beer company.
This week, in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, the "novel coronavirus" claimed its sixth victim worldwide. What’s more, over the past month, two more members of the victim’s family contracted the virus, leading scientists to suspect that this new infection can be transferred person-to-person, which isn't the kind of news you want to hear about a deadly virus that could potentially kill everyone you know.
While medical authorities haven’t slammed down the panic button just yet, these developments could certainly raise the threat level, explained David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. “That rang alarm bells for obvious reasons,” he said, “because human-to-human transfer is one of the steps that a virus has to take if it’s going to turn into some sort of human pandemic.”
The novel coronavirus was first discovered last September, when a Qatari man traveled to London to receive medical attention for a mysterious illness. According to Quammen, it raised a red flag among experts from the outset. “There are certain families of viruses and groups of viruses that are on the watch list of special concern, because they have the potential to cause the next big outbreak, which might become an epidemic, which might even become a pandemic. The coronaviruses are on that list.”
So far, only 12 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported worldwide—a third of which were found in Britain. Similar to the SARS virus that plagued Asia a decade ago, the coronavirus is a respiratory disease that causes kidney problems, breathing difficulties, and fever. So far, half of all reported cases have been fatal. More good news: a new study revealed the virus breeds in the human body faster than SARS and can evade the immune system as easily as the common cold.
While medical authorities have made assurances that the virus currently poses a low risk to the general population, the truth is that—at this early stage—it’s impossible to determine exactly how dangerous it might be.
A spokesperson for the UK-based Health Protection Agency (HPA) explained: “With any of these sorts of new viruses, you don’t really know, because when you have such a small amount of cases, you think that it’s behaving in a certain way. But, of course, that could change. Viruses change quite frequently and sometimes suddenly a new one can emerge. But equally, one can slowly emerge over a long period of time with very small morphing. So it’s really very hard to say.”
But, whether this coronavirus ends with a whimper or a bang, scientists believe that it’s only a matter of time until a new potentially catastrophic global pandemic emerges. David Quammen explained, “What the experts say is that, first of all, yes, it is very likely that new diseases will continue to emerge. I talk about the Next Big One—the NBO. It’s almost tautological that there will be a Next Big One. The question is: What will it be and how big will it be?”
New disease outbreaks are more common than you might assume. In the past few months alone, a strain of completely drug-resistant TB has begun working its way through sub-Saharan Africa and the number of incurable gonorrhea infections has risen significantly in the US. But more so than any of these other cases, the coronavirus has the potential to become a global problem.
Another pretty picture of the virus that can slowly kill you as your respiratory system shuts down.
“Experts say, ‘So, which groups of viruses fit [the NBO] category?’" said Quammen. "And one of the things they point to is the coronaviruses. So that’s why they’re very concerned, or at least very attentive to this novel coronavirus—because it fits right into the target zone of what the experts have been warning the next dangerous one would look like.”
While the anxious among us can take solace in the fact that improved medical technology and more efficient monitoring systems will undoubtedly help to stem the spread of the next big outbreak, modern advances can actually help, as well as hinder, the spread of a new virus. In fact, the very nature of our increasingly interconnected world means that conditions are perfect for a new virus to spread, like cold sores at a nightclub's underage night.
“There are seven billion of us humans now, and we are very, very interconnected. We fly around the world, we ship products worldwide, everything is being transferred around the world very quickly,” Quammen explained. “So, if a new disease gets into us, it too will get transferred around the world very quickly. We’re like a forest of very dry trees and undergrowth, waiting to be hit by lightning.”
Of course, with only a handful of cases so far, it would be highly premature to begin panicking over the latest outbreak of coronavirus. But that isn't to say that the Next Big One isn’t already on the horizon. And if it does strike, its impact could be dramatic.
“I think it’s reasonable to say that it could kill millions of people," Quammen told me. "Remember that the AIDS pandemic was something that we didn’t even imagine until the early 1980s, but it had been building over previous decades and, at this point, it has killed 33 million people and another 30 million are infected. So is it possible that something else would spill over into humans and either very quickly, or over a longer period of time, kill 33 million people? Yes, absolutely. Why not?”
Follow Ronan on Twitter: @RonanOKelly
More fun diseases and viruses: