Coronavirus might be here to stay – and face masks won't necessarily stop the spread

We needn’t rely solely on global authorities to keep us safe. These are a number of things we can all do to help minimise the risk of being infected

Passengers on coronavirus-hit cruise ship arrive back in UK

The world looks to be teetering on the edge of a coronavirus (or severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2/SARS-CoV-2) pandemic that will be extremely hard for the world to contain.

As the epidemic of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus) continues to grow in China, new outbreaks have been observed in East Asia, the Middle East and Europe often with minimal connections to earlier most-affected regions, indicating a worrying level of covert spread.

Still, there remains no vaccine nor specific antiviral drugs against the coronavirus that emerged in humans from animals at the very end of 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Since early December, nearly 80,000 cases have been confirmed globally (most of which are in China) leading to nearly 3,000 deaths as the virus has spread to nearly 30 countries across the world.

The UK has upgraded its risk from low to moderate as it has tested nearly 7,000 people for the virus and found 13 cases, with most now recovered and zero deaths observed.

But will the coronavirus become a pandemic? If so, how will this affect the UK and what can we do to help contain the virus?

The outbreak of the coronavirus has developed rapidly over the last three months and in ways that we may not have predicted. It is likely that this unpredictable trend will continue into the future. Once an outbreak only affecting one province in China, the situation changed when the virus spread across the country and numerous other nations found cases in travellers from the affected regions.

From here, the WHO announced a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC), joining an elite club of outbreaks alongside those of recent Ebola, polio and Zika epidemics. As the coronavirus PHEIC develops, especially in countries outside of China, it will undoubtedly develop into something resembling a pandemic, which will make seeing more cases of coronavirus in places that have never seen it, more likely than not.

Countries will undoubtedly be preparing for the near-eventuality of a pandemic and have plans in place to mitigate its impact on health and society. Whether an outbreak is considered a pandemic is based on whether it is a global epidemic in more than one region, such as East Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. Due to our experience with previous similar pandemics of influenza viruses, the study of which might be helpful for coronavirus, six stages of pandemic development have been noted from initial animal-to-human infections through and past the pandemic phases. With the situation in the Middle East and Italy developing, it looks like we are currently between the stages of 5 and 6, although a scale that might work for influenza may not be true for coronavirus. Humanity has witnessed – and survived – numerous pandemics of infectious diseases in recent history, including HIV/AIDS, numerous influenza virus pandemics (including the 2009-10 “swine flu” H1N1 pandemic), and seven pandemics of the cholera bacteria.

So, what can be done to slow the spread?

Governments worldwide have been preparing for pandemics for decades – if not centuries – and have since learned how to approach them appropriately. To date, the UK has done a seemingly excellent job in this regard for coronavirus based on the numbers of suspected cases tested and the identification of positive cases and rapid extinguishing of their transmission. Tools to respond to pandemics include rapid detection, contact tracing, treatment, quarantine or isolation and stockpiling of equipment and medicines. However, there are undoubtedly significant differences in capacity between countries, as has been observed in Italy and Iran who have evidently failed to detect the initial incursions of the virus through their borders, and more cases from different geographical regions (Europe and the Middle East for example) will make global containment exceedingly challenging even for the UK.

If the new coronavirus becomes established in the UK, then there are also things that everybody can do to help control the spread of infections and minimise societal disruption. As the virus is spread easily through the respiratory route, practising good hygiene, including covering your nose and mouth during coughing and sneezing; quickly binning used tissues; washing your hands thoroughly and regularly especially before touching your face, and practising social distancing by minimising contact with people if you feel unwell with cold or flu-like symptoms, are the best means of day to day prevention. There is little evidence that wearing face masks will help to protect you. Furthermore, employers should plan in advance for increased staff sickness.

On the whole, the coronavirus situation is not improving and is becoming more serious as the days and weeks go on. However, no matter what, this is not a time to panic and there are glimmers of hope in the rapid sharing of scientific and medical research and the demonstrated actions of countries to try and contain the spread.

Governments worldwide have plans in preparation for pandemics and there are very real things that each one of us can to slow the spread of the infection down and minimise the overall impact on society. We need to take every opportunity to learn as much as we can about coronavirus to help understand its infection, how it causes disease and how we can stop it. Safe and effective vaccines and antiviral medicines, which could take many months to appear, will be needed if the outbreak continues to develop, with the real likelihood that coronavirus might be here with us to stay.

Connor Bamford is a virologist at the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, Queen's University Belfast

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