Is the Wuhan Coronavirus as Deadly as the SARS and MERS Outbreaks?
SARS killed 10 percent of the people it infected and MERS killed 25 percent. The death rate for the new coronavirus, however, appears to be only 2 percent. 
SARS killed 10 percent of the people it infected and MERS killed 25 percent. The death rate for the new coronavirus, however, appears to be only 2 percent. (Photo: AP)

Is the Wuhan Coronavirus as Deadly as the SARS and MERS Outbreaks?

As Wuhan’s coronavirus spreads fast, countries around the world have started preparations to protect themselves from the outbreak. While cases have been confirmed in 20 countries now, timely isolation, monitoring, and screening of passengers coming from China will hopefully help contain the spread of the new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV).

Deaths have only been reported from China, which is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) hasn’t declared it a public health emergency of international concern yet. However, the spiraling of the virus — that can be transmitted through close human contact — has led the emergency committee to meet again on 30 January, Thursday to reconsider its decision.

But this isn’t the first time that a viral infection has stirred panic. What happened in the past and is the current outbreak as contagious? Is it, for instance, any deadlier than influenza?

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SARS, MERS, & Wuhan Coronavirus

The 2019-nCov belongs to the same family of viruses as the one that caused the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak. SARS originated in China and killed nearly 800 people; paralyzing transport and damaging Asian economies. A different strain of coronavirus was responsible for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in Saudi Arabia in 2012 that traveled to other countries, affecting 2144 people and leading to 750 deaths.

The new strain of virus, originating in China’s Wuhan, has now affected 7,700 people and killed 170.

The deaths have mostly been reported among older people, with the median age of the first 425 infected people in China being 59.

According to a report published in The New England Journal of Medicine, it has been estimated that each affected person transmits the infection to 2.2 more people on an average — a figure higher than normal flu but lesser than other respiratory diseases or the SARS outbreak, where estimates suggest that each person passed it on to 3 others.

If we compare the death rates of all the outbreaks, it can be concluded that the earlier ones were deadlier. According to The New York Times,

SARS killed 10 percent of the people it infected and MERS killed 25 percent. The death rate for the new coronavirus, however, appears to be only 2 percent.

Of course, the rate is not fixed yet, with the number of sick people and the death toll increasing on a daily basis — making any statement on its potency uncertain at the moment.

But does the 2017-NcoV warrant the kind of panic that is being triggered globally?

Influenza Kills More People Every Year

Dr Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnosota, told the NYT, that the spread of the new coronavirus is starting to resemble that of seasonal flu.

Speaking to FIT, Dr Sumit Ray, Senior Consultant, Critical Care Medicine, says, “It has been well-known through history that any viral infection in winter is a cause of significant death among the elderly.”

Seasonal flu kills 291,000 to 646,000 people worldwide each year. A minimum of 8,200 people in the United States died during this flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The mortality rate of influenza every year is 2-3% of the people who do get diagnosed — which does not include the deaths due to secondary illnesses caused by influenza. Coronavirus, on the other hand, has a death rate of 2%. You can’t be panicking just because it’s a new strain, when you know that viral infections have always been a major cause of death among the elderly.”
Dr Sumit Ray

That there is no vaccine yet to prevent the new virus is a reason to worry, but the death rate of influenza — despite a vaccine — speaks volumes.

“We cannot discount the deaths that the new virus is causing. But panic doesn’t help anybody. A consistent effort to improve primary and secondary healthcare is required to contain these viral infections”, Dr Ray adds.

As our understanding of the new virus is still evolving, the efforts made by various countries are a safe precautionary measure to contain the spread.

(With inputs from AP)

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