Six Facts About the Wuhan Coronavirus

 By Shlomo Maital


Wuhan coronavirus

   Here are six things you should know about the Wuhan coronavirus, now sowing panic worldwide. (Based in part on Dr. Dan Werb’s New York Times article.) [1]

  1. China is an integral part of the global economy, and its factories supply parts for other countries’ supply chain ecosystems. China’s economy itself is 20% of the world economy – so any negative impact on China’s economy impacts the world directly, at once, and indirectly, over time. I know Israeli hi-tech firms whose products are made in China that have already been hard hit.   The Wuhan virus is teaching the world that ‘globalization’ is a fact and that when the virus bell tolls, it tolls for everyone everywhere.
  2. A key data point is so-called R0 – how many additional people are infected, on average, when one person falls ill with the coronavirus? The answer is, apparently, 1.4 to 2.5.   Is this good or bad? Both. It is higher than SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), whose R0 is only 0.5. It is far lower than measles or polio. And it is just a bit higher than seasonal flu. But the point is, it does spread easily and rapidly.  
  3. Another key data point: How deadly is it? Not very.   About 2% of those who fall ill die from it, mainly from pneumonia and after-effects. Those who die are mostly those whose immune system and general health are poor. And in any event, a lot more people die of seasonal flu than from coronavirus. But don’t forget, that 2% does not really matter. If you can die from it, then the coronavirus sows panic —   we humans are poor at perceiving accurately probabilities, and if something bad CAN happen, then we (rightly) worry that it WILL.
  4. Why did it start in China? Ducks and pigs. Chinese farms raise both. Ducks eat parasites in rice paddies, so they do good. But their “unique biology” makes them repositories for “a vast number of viruses”, while with pigs, various strains of viruses mix together and evolve and mutate into new strains able to infect humans (e.g. swine flu).   Having said that, it appears that the Wuhan coronavirus may have come from bats or other animals, sold in a Wuhan market.
  5. What is coronavirus? Why is it called that? According to Dr. Werb, “The family of coronaviruses (so-called because they resemble glowing crowns) that includes the new Wuhan strain are exceptionally challenging to control. It gets its name from the shape of the virus, like a kind of crown, (corona is ‘crown’ in Latin) or like the circular corona of the sun. Coronaviruses are responsible for the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis, but the coronavirus family is sprawling and includes deadlier outliers like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which have fatality rates of up to 15 percent and 35 percent, respectively.”  
  6. Why can’t we just take a pill or a vaccine shot and solve the problem? Why doesn’t the body’s own system of antibodies defeat them?   Viruses in general, and coronaviruses in particular, are really ‘smart’. Here is what I learned about how they foil the immune system.

      “When a virus enters the body, a race begins between responding immune cells and the infecting pathogen. The pathogen replicates and finds a target cell or organ that will allow it to thrive.   So, the effectiveness of a response depends on the immune system winning the race to clear the pathogen before it causes irreversible damage to the body.   Immune cells called “B cells” make antibodies. A pathogen such as a virus is a large molecule with different components, called antigens. When a B cell recognizes an antigen, it is activated and interacts with other immune cells to receive directions. When an “invader” cell attacks, the body’s immune system checks its ‘memory’ to see if it has seen it before. Because memory cells have already undergone quality improvement, they can respond quickly after reinfection to produce a large number of plasma cells secreting high-quality antibody.   Therefore, memory cells can clear the infection much more rapidly than the initial infection. This means the pathogen doesn’t have time to damage the body. However viruses change, mutate and evolve. Flu is highly variable and changes each season, or evolves in ducks and pigs; variations are why we require yearly vaccinations. And with Wuhan coronavirus, which ‘surprised’ the world, no vaccine exists yet, nor will we have one for many months.”         


   So, what is my prediction? Will coronavirus become a global pandemic, like the 1918-19 infuenza epidemic that killed between 20 million and 40 million people, more than in World War I (including my grandfather Israel)? Or will we manage to control it?

   No, it will not become a pandemic. It will slash a few points of global growth. We should learn the main lesson that Wuhan coronavirus comes to teach us. We have created a superb global ecosystem, where nations become wealthy by doing what they do best and selling the result to others, buying from others what THEY do best. This creates an enormous interdependent ecosystem, with major advantages but one big disadvantage – any bad virus that starts in one place spreads rapidly all over, because of millions who travel regularly. Shutting down travel, and trade, is devastating, but at times necessary. And there will be lots of those viruses, because they are very clever, they change, mutate and adapt, and continually surprise us, making off-the-shelf solutions irrelevant and fooling our immune systems regularly.

   We will need a new, efficient, clever and rapid global cooperative mechanism to deal with this new threat. But the current political poison against global cooperation may make this really difficult to attain.  

[1] Dr. Dan Werb, New York Times, Jan. 30/2020, To Understand the Wuhan Coronavirus, Look to the Epidemic Triangle.