Fear of a global pandemic is starting to rear its head.
In the past month, at least 18 people have died and more than 600 have been infected by a never-before-seen virus—a new strain of the coronavirus—that causes pneumonia and spreads through human-to-human contact. The respiratory illness was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan on December 31st, and has since been linked to a family of diseases that includes the deadly SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). But it remains unclear where exactly this novel disease originated, or how far it has spread.
Wuhan, the outbreak epicentre, is in lockdown. All flights have been suspended and transport networks are closed. But cases of the new coronavirus have already spread beyond China, showing up in surrounding Asian countries and infecting at least one man in the United States. Earlier this week, a Queensland man who recently flew back to Australia from Wuhan was placed under investigation by authorities to determine whether he had contracted the virus (he was later cleared) and yesterday, a man in New South Wales was quarantined for the same reason, the ABC reported.
The World Health Organization [WHO] has not decided to declare a global health emergency yet. But how worried should Australia be about this mysterious, deadly new virus and the possibility of it spreading further? And what is being done to mitigate that risk?
The first thing to note is that the only direct flight into Australia from Wuhan flies into Sydney, courtesy of China Eastern Airlines, three times a week. The last of those flights to depart Wuhan before the city was placed on lockdown this week arrived in Sydney on Wednesday morning, and all passengers were screened by NSW Health officials and Commonwealth biosecurity officials as they left the aircraft. The potential NSW coronavirus patient was aboard this flight.
There’s no guarantee that the threat can be contained at the border, however, as this coronavirus—dubbed the 2019-nCoV—may have a long incubation period and patients may not be displaying symptoms when they enter the country. If this is the case, then there is the possibility of these symptoms developing over the next week or so and more cases of the disease could start to emerge.
This also means the actual number of people who have contracted the virus could be much higher than current confirmed cases would suggest, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected yet. The varying severity of symptoms muddies the waters further, as some people appear to suffer only mild illness while others become severely ill.
The virus has been designated a “notifiable disease” in NSW under the Public Health Act, meaning doctors and laboratories are required to report any suspected cases to NSW Health. It’s thought that healthcare workers could be at risk of contracting the 2019-nCoV if they unexpectedly come across someone who has travelled to an affected region, The Guardian reported, but staff in the state’s public hospitals have been given precautionary advice to help them identify cases of the infection and apply relevant measures to control it. All Australian states hold the power to place people on lockdown in order to prevent communicable diseases from spreading.
"Every one of our state public health departments has a designated isolation facility and clearly established protocols to get people to those facilities," Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, told the ABC. "The tests are being sped up. At the moment, it's still taking one or two days to get a confirmed test. We're getting much more rapid tests on hand."
Professor Murphy further noted that "it's quite possible we will get a case [in Australia], but I think we are well prepared to respond."
"We keep all sorts of things, particularly drugs, EpiPens, thermometers, so if there is a very large emergency of a public health significance that overwhelms the suppliers in state and territory health services we can activate that stockpile and get stuff out."
So how worried should we be about the spread of the 2019-nCoV in Australia? Well, it's not entirely clear. There's no ruling out the possibility that the virus could be brought into Australia, or that it's already slipped through the borders undetected. But the nation's top health authorities seem confident they're well positioned to deal with the threat.
Australia’s Department of Health, for one, is mostly urging people to remain calm.
“While the 2019-nCoV has caused a few deaths, and some cases have been severe, people should not be overly alarmed," the Department said. “[The Department of] Health is aware of the outbreak and is watching developments closely. Airlines are already required to report passengers who show signs of an infectious disease, including fever, sweats or chills, so sick travellers can be met by biosecurity officers when they arrive in Australia to be assessed.”
Chris Campbell, president of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia Queensland, echoed the WHO’s advice for those concerned about contracting the disease, suggesting that they "keep up that hand hygiene, and by that it's just making sure we're always washing our hands if we've been in areas with contact with other people,” the ABC reported.
All that said, if you start experiencing symptoms such as a temperature, fever, breathlessness, coughing, or a sore throat, you should contact a GP as soon as possible.