The news coming out of China is not encouraging but it has not yet reached alarmist proportions. The new coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, had affected 1,723 at the start of last week according to Imperial College London, but with only around 200 cases and three deaths declared by the Chinese authorities so far. The virus has reportedly spread from the original source, the city of Wuhan, and now affects Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing. An uptick is expected with the forthcoming Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations. Outside China, cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
Airports in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo have begun screening air passengers from Wuhan, and US authorities have announced similar measures at three major airports in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. No measures have yet been put in place in the UK but this may soon change.
Public Health England (PHE) has also issued advice to travellers to Asia on its website. PHE says: ‘The risk to the UK population is very low and the risk to travellers to Wuhan is low, but they are advised to take simple precautions such as practising good hand and personal hygiene and minimise contact with birds and animals in markets in Wuhan as a further precaution.’
The outbreak has revived memories of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus – also a coronavirus – in late 2002 and early 2003. Analysis of the genetic code of the latest virus shows it is more closely related to SARS than any other human coronavirus.
While SARS originated in southern China, it eventually caused 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths in 37 countries, with the majority of cases in China and Hong Kong (9.6% mortality rate) according to the World Health Organization (WHO). However, Canada recorded 251 cases with 44 deaths (18% mortality rate). The epidemic eventually petered out by 2004.
SARS and related flu viruses are spread in a similar way to colds and flu. The National Health Service (NHS) website provides advice on symptoms, which normally appear 2-7 days after infection, and actions to prevent spreading the infection. These are the usual hygiene measures for preventing flu – see the PHE’s winter flu campaign. There is no vaccine for SARS.
Business should revise their resilience plans for dealing with an epidemic or pandemic. The fact that a high proportion of staff could be absent at the same time with flu-like symptoms means that maintenance of operations with a severely reduced labour force for several days or weeks is one of the key challenges to overcome. Details of the government’s preparations for a pandemic can be found here.