– January 24, 2020 – Science
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- Chinese viruses: “The challenge is to be vigilant without being catastrophic”.
The epidemic of pneumonia linked to the new nCov coronavirus is spreading. On January 24, 2020, the death toll was 26 and more than 800 people infected. The severity of the coronavirus remains variable, as it causes deaths and serious conditions, but some patients also come out of it cured. In any case, China is redoubling its efforts to contain the spread: three cities have been quarantined. Is crisis management up to the task? Professor Yves Hansmann, Head of the Infectious and Tropical Diseases Department at Strasbourg Hospital, deciphers the situation with us.
The outbreak of the infection has been identified: an animal market in Wuhan. The exact origin of the coronavirus remains uncertain, the latest serious study to date suggests a mutation of a virus present in bats, which then passed to snakes and then to humans. So if Wuhan is under quarantine, it’s because the place is the main source of the outbreak. This measure involves confining more than 10 million people.
Image of a coronavirus (here the one that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). The term means “crown virus” because the virus is surrounded by a small crown of bulbous projections as seen in this microscopic image. // Source: CDC
Recent history has not seen other quarantines on this scale. And that is not the only measure: controls have been increased in many airports and France is redoubling its vigilance. Many laboratories are already working on coronavirus profiling to find effective treatments and even vaccines. “Taking so many measures to limit the spread and spread of the virus is a good sign,” says Professor Yves Hansmann.
An analogy is often made between nCov and SARS – whose epidemic had caused more than 700 deaths and 8,000 infections. The two viruses have much in common, but that alone does not allow us to jump to conclusions. “SARS is close, but it’s not exactly the same thing. Its virulence had gradually diminished over the course of the epidemic; nCov is not known. But so far, early data show that it may not be as serious as SARS. »
Responsiveness is better than for SARS
The SARS analogy also has limitations when it comes to crisis management. At the time, the response had been slower. “For this epidemic, diagnosis and awareness were later, and at a stage when the diagnosis was discovered outside the outbreak. We started to hear about it from the worldwide dissemination,” recalls Yves Hansmann. Conversely, regarding nCov, the timing is encouraging as awareness of the epidemic has been rapid and the measures with.
Professor Yves Hansmann wishes to point out that in such a situation, projections are difficult to make from a scientific point of view. So far, only elderly or sick people have succumbed to the virus, but this alone is not enough to predict the future danger of nCov. The mutations or not of a virus cannot really be anticipated. The 2009 influenza pandemic had been envisioned as potentially devastating, where it ended up with severe complications in the 2-3% range – the stage of seasonal influenza. It is therefore too early to draw any optimistic or pessimistic conclusions about nCov.
In any case, for Yves Hansmann, the positive aspect of the management of this crisis is “to see that there is an awareness, a dissemination of information, even to the general public“. General practitioners are also informed of the situation on how to refer potentially affected patients. The more vigilant the overall population, “the greater the chance of identifying suspect patients and implementing preventive measures to avoid spreading around them“.
The fact that the virus is so much in the centre of attention therefore has the virtue of warning as many people as possible. But, as Yves Hansmann points out, the content of the information that is transmitted has just as much impact. Talking about it is a good thing, but we must not sink into anxiety either. “What is important is to know that, at present, only those who are directly at risk are those who can be infected with the virus,” says Hansmann. This includes people who have been through the outbreak or have been in contact with someone who has. “This represents a minority of people. »
Being vigilant without being catastrophic
It would be “counterproductive” to suggest in any way that anyone who starts coughing should think about this virus and consider being hospitalized under special conditions. This would destabilize the health system and ultimately hinder the proper diagnosis of the virus and therefore the development of treatments. Above all, the information should serve as a “catalyst for policy decisions, health services, research teams“, to unlock funding and push for the right actions to be taken.
In short, the situation is not benign, far from it, otherwise it would not receive as much attention, so it is important to talk about it. But it must be done as reasonably as possible, without making excessive projections one way or the other. “In fact, in this context the challenge is to be vigilant without being catastrophic,” concludes Yves Hansmann.
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