Coronavirus cases could be grossly underestimated, say some scientists

30 January 2020 - 14:24 By Tanya Farber
Passengers arrive from Hong Kong at Cape Town International Airport, on January 29 2019, after being screened by health officials following the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.
Passengers arrive from Hong Kong at Cape Town International Airport, on January 29 2019, after being screened by health officials following the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

It’s a monster with an unknown shape. That seems to be the consensus of scientists across the globe as they try to make sense of novel coronavirus which is spreading at a speed too high for effective research.

Some scientists are casting doubt on the tally of cases and deaths, saying that the modelling of calculations is highly flawed.

University of Hong Kong’s Gabriel Leung released a statement saying that “without substantial draconian measures limiting population mobility” [even greater than the shut down already in place] epidemics outside China “may become inevitable”.

According to reports in New Scientist, Leung and other epidemiologists say there are “far more cases in China than doctors have diagnosed” and that by next week, there may be as many as 200,000.

As of Thursday, the official numbers are: 170 deaths and 7,700 cases. But scientists are calling this “a massive underestimate”.

David Fisman, of the University of Toronto, told New Scientist that something is off if one plugs numbers into “standard epidemic models” and that the case numbers have been grossly underestimated, because “it took doctors time to learn to diagnose the disease”.

He says that it is an underestimation that each infected person infects about two others: in one case, a patient transmitted it to as many as 14 others, most of them health personnel.

Leung suspects there are 25,000 people who are already sick and another 19,000 incubating the virus, just in Wuhan.

While the current death rate of those with the virus is pegged at 2.3%, Leung and his colleagues estimate it could be as high as 14%, since 96% of those with the virus haven’t yet recovered or died.

It has an incubation time of between one and 14 days, which means those with the virus are spreading it before their own symptoms become apparent.

Another component of novel coronavirus that makes it an intangible monster is, ironically, its apparent mildness.

According to a Bloomberg News report, “In an epidemiological twist of fate, the coronavirus’s mildness may help it spread undetected until it hits the most vulnerable people. Experts are concerned that it could find a devastating ‘sweet spot’ - mild enough that some patients will go about their normal routines and spread the virus far and wide, triggering an increase in deaths.”

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention compared it to flu, which it described as a “mild-mannered serial killer”.

Bloomberg thus reports that “the aggressive response to the coronavirus is meant to stop the new pathogen from becoming a deadlier copycat”.

Michael Ryan, director of the World Health Organisation’s emergencies programme, said in a statement, “A relatively mild virus can cause a lot of damage if a lot of people get it.”

Meanwhile, infections have been diagnosed in 15 countries apart from China. Russia has shut its borders with China, and the World Health Organisation will be meeting again to discuss whether it constitutes a global health emergency.


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