Boris Johnson plunged the UK into a coronavirus lockdown that could last 18 months after experts warned that the ‘worst case’ scenario of 250,000 deaths had become the most likely outcome.
The grim advice that drove the dramatic escalation – with people urged to avoid all ‘nonessential’ social contact – was laid bare today as the PM told Cabinet that the country is ‘engaged in a war against the disease which we have to win’.
The Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, which has been advising the government, processed new information from Italy and concluded that the limited measures in place before would still result in a ‘very large number or deaths’.
Professor Neil Ferguson said it became clear what had been envisaged as the worst case – with a death toll of 250,000 or even higher in the UK – had become ‘the most likely scenario’.
In contrast, the draconian new curbs limit the fatalities to fewer than 20,000 by keeping people away from each other and slowing down the spread of the virus. The government’s chief science officer, Patrick Vallance declared this afternoon that casualties on those levels could be regarded as a ‘good outcome’, albeit still ‘horrible’.
Sir Patrick also estimated that there are currently 55,000 infected people in the UK, despite the number of positive tests only standing at 1,950.
A report from the Imperial team highlighted the new information about how the situation in Italy has spiralled out of control and overwhelmed hospitals. Around 2,200 people have now died there and there have been 28,000 confirmed infections, although the true toll is likely considerably higher.
The switch-up amounted to an admission that officials’ original plans to control and slow the outbreak – to ‘flatten the curve’ – had been too optimistic.
Officials are urging manufacturers to help out by building intensive care ventilators if they can to plug an NHS shortfall in critical beds.
But data in the Imperial College report suggests that hospitals will be overwhelmed regardless of what measures the Government takes, and a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases is unavoidable.
Meanwhile, the government is preparing a massive package of aid designed to avoid the crisis effectively sending the country bankrupt.
Scrapping utility bills and cancelling council tax are among the extraordinary ‘wartime’ measures being mooted for the response, which will be unveiled by Chancellor Rishi Sunak later. Some experts have suggested the government will have to pump an unprecedented £450billion into the economy to avoid mass destruction of businesses and workers being sent into poverty.
Ambulance workers are pictured wearing protective gear as they handle potentially hazardous samples at St Thomas’ Hospital in London – the capital is the hardest-hit area in the country
UK authorities had confirmed 1,543 cases of the coronavirus and 55 deaths by yesterday. The true number of infected people is believed to be higher than 25,000
Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday announced that the UK was going to war with the coronavirus – people were urged to work from home, not to socialise and to self-isolate if anyone in their house becomes ill
Data from the Imperial College team shows that nothing can stop the coronavirus overwhelming NHS intensive care units. Even the most strict quarantine measures would not prevent there being far more cases than there are beds to handle
Healthy people below the age of 70 have been urged to work from home if they can, to avoid socialising or going out and to stop all non-essential travel
The government’s chief science officer, Patrick Vallance told MPs this afternoon that casualties on those levels could be regarded as a ‘good outcome’, albeit still ‘horrible’
On another hectic day of developments in the UK’s biggest challenge since the Second World War:
- The number of people to test positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 9am today is 1,950, up from 1,543 yesterday, the Department of Health said;
- Chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said the true figure was likely to be 55,000, and suggested a death toll of 20,000 might be a ‘good outcome’, albeit a ‘horrible’ one;
- Sir Patrick also confirmed that over-70s should not be going for Sunday lunch with their children and grandchildren during the lockdown;
- Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has advised Britons against all but essential travel anywhere in the world for the next 30 days. There is growing pressure on the government to follow an EU ban on arrivals from outside the bloc;
- Economists have predicted the Chancellor will have to bail out huge swathes of the economy to avoid millions of people being made unemployed and businesses collapsing permanently;
- The FTSE has dipped again amid mounting fears about the consequences of a global shutdown, although it is hovering above the psychologically important 5,000 mark;
- The government is publishing emergency legislation to bring back recently-retired doctors and nurses, enhance sick pay, and hold criminal trials by video link;
- Euro 2020 football tournament is expected to be postponed until next year, although Japan is insisting the Olympics will go ahead;
The bombshell report was produced by a crack team of virus, disease and public health experts at the prestigious Imperial College London university.
Professor Ferguson said he and his colleagues had been working ‘seven days a week for the past two months’ to advise the Government and put information about the coronavirus into the public domain.
They have concluded the virus can’t be stopped.
Prof Ferguson said his team had been ‘refining’ predictions for the course of the epidemic since their ‘worst case’ estimate of 250,000-plus deaths.
‘No country in the world this far has seen an epidemic that large [250,000 deaths], this is an early extrapolation of an early epidemic that was suppressed in China,’ he said.
UK citizens are told to avoid non-essential travel GLOBALLY for 30 days in coronavirus lockdown
UK citizens were told to avoid all non-essential travel anywhere in the world today as the Government tried to battle the coronaviris pandemic.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Britons should avoid travel ‘globally’ under new travel advice from the Foreign Office.
The new rules will initially be in place for 30 days but will be ‘subject to ongoing revision’ he told the House of Commons.
‘Based on the fast-changing international circumstances today I am announcing changes to FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) travel advice,’ he told MPs.
‘UK travellers abroad now face widespread international border restrictions and lockdowns in various countries.
‘The FCO will always consider the safety and the security of British nationals so with immediate effect I’ve taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally for an initial period of 30 days and of course subject to ongoing review.’
He said that the government was speaking to tour operators, insurance operators and airlines over a move that is likely to grind holiday and business travel to a virtual standstill, threatening jobs and business viability.
The shift comes after EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced outlined plans for a 30-day ban on all non-essential inflows to the bloc.
‘But we have no reason to believe that’s not what would happen if we frankly did nothing, and even if we did all we could to slow, not reverse, the spread, we’d still be looking at a very large number of deaths and the health system being overwhelmed.’
He added: ‘Initially when we came up with these kid of estimates they were viewed as what’s called the reasonable worst case.
‘But as information has been gathered in recent weeks, from particularly Italy but other countries, it has become increasingly clear that actually this is not the reasonable worst case – it is the most likely scenario.
‘The second piece of information which I think was critical is NHS planners going away and seeing how much could they surge health system capacity, particularly in critical care. Whilst they are planning a major expansion of that – cancelling elective surgery, building new beds, getting new ventilators – it just isn’t enough to fill the gap.
‘So we are left with no option but to adopt this more draconian strategy.’
If no action at all had been taken against the coronavirus it would have claimed 510,000 lives, the team’s report said.
Had the Government stuck with their strategy of trying to ‘mitigate’ the spread – allowing it to continue but attempting to slow it down – with limited measures such as home isolation for those with symptoms this number would be roughly halved to 260,000.
If the strictest possible measures are introduced – including school closures and mandatory home quarantine – the number of deaths over a two-year period will fall below 20,000, the scientists said.
‘Instead of talking about hundreds of thousands of deaths, there still will be a significant health impact that we’ll be talking about,’ Professor Ferguson said.
‘Hopefully, tens of thousands… maybe, depending on how early we are, just a few thousands.’
Government sources said the policy change had not been the result of a sudden warning from the scientists, but that new information had emerged in recent days.
A source at the Department of Health said: ‘We’ve been listening to Imperial all along. It’s based on an evolving picture, and they’ve started to get a load more information about what is happening in Italy, which is what has informed this. We’ve been guided by the science and by the evidence from the very start.’
The Imperial scientists emphasised there will be no end in sight to the measures until a vaccine is created.
Other points in the Imperial College report, titled Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand, included:
- Lockdown measures could be brought back if the virus resurfaces after this epidemic is over
- The coronavirus outbreak is worse than anything the world has seen since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic
- It was ‘highly likely’ people would have started social distancing by themselves out of fear or responsibility, even if the Government hadn’t told them to
- Dramatic measures to suppress an outbreak carry ‘enormous social and economic costs which may themselves have significant impact on health and well-being’
- Virus transmission happens evenly – one third of cases are caught in the home, one third at work or school, and one third elsewhere in the community
- People are thought to be infectious from 12 hours before symptoms start, or from four days after catching the infection if someone doesn’t get symptoms
- Patients who do get symptoms are thought to be 50 per cent more infectious than those who don’t
- People are thought to develop at least short-term immunity after catching the virus, meaning they can’t catch it again
- Approximately 4.4 per cent of patients need hospital care. 30 per cent of those need intensive care, and 50 per cent of intensive care patients can be expected to die, according to data from China
- The average length of a hospital stay for a coronavirus patient is 10 days – eight days for those who recover quickly; 16 days for those who need intensive care
The Imperial model predicted that closing schools and universities would not necessarily relieve pressure on the NHS, but simply delay it – the spike in critical care bed occupancy is the same size as it would be if nothing was done, but it happens six months later
London Waterloo was bereft of commuters this morning after official advice told people to work from home if they could
Bristol Temple Meads train station was eerily quiet this morning at a time when it would usually be heaving in rush hour
Rush hour traffic was missing from the M60 near Oldham, Greater Manchester, this morning
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty (centre) and Health Secretary Matt Hancock (right) were in Downing Street for Cabinet today, along with Department of Health permanent secretary Chris Wormald (left)
More than 180,000 people around the world have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and at least 7,000 people have died – the true number of cases is likely to be significantly higher
WHAT IS THE NEW GOVERNMENT ADVICE?
- Avoid social contact
- Work from home if possible
- Avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other social venues
- If someone in your household has symptoms of coronavirus (cough, fever or unusual shortness of breath), everyone in the home self-isolate for 14 days
- If isolating, only go outside for exercise, and do it away from other people
- Ask for help with daily necessities like food and medical supplies
- If that is not possible – for example if you live in a remote area – you should limit social contact as much as possible
- Vulnerable groups should self-isolate for 12 weeks from this weekend even if they have no symptoms – This includes people aged 70 and over and other adults who would normally be advised to have the flu vaccination, including people with chronic diseases such as chronic heart disease or chronic kidney disease, and pregnant women. A full list is here
- All unnecessary visits to friends and relatives in care homes should end
- Continue to take your children to school unless they or someone else in your home has symptoms of the coronavirus (cough, fever or unusual shortness of breath)
- Londoners need to socially distance and work from home even more than the rest of the UK because the disease is more widespread there
- Mass gatherings should not happen – they will no longer receive emergency services’ protection if they do go ahead
The lockdown announced by Mr Johnson last night, has sparked panic among businesses, while the self-employed and those in the ‘gig’ economy could also struggle to work.
Venue owners have vented fury at the PM for not ordering them to close, saying that means they cannot claim on insurance.
A former adviser to George Osborne has suggested that the total commitment needed from the government coudl be as big as £450billion.
And giving evidence to MPs this morning, the government’s own fiscal watchdog said ministers must now borrow huge sums to keep UK plc afloat.
They warned there could be a hit of over 5 per cent to the country’s GDP, and ‘wartime’ level of response was needed.
Office for Budget Responsibility chief Robert Chote suggested that paying firms to waive utility bills and ditching council tax could be a good way of helping the public.
The experts also mooted the idea of guaranteeing businesses the same revenue this year as in the last 12 months.
Mr Chote said: ‘This is not a time to be squeamish about pubilc sector debt. It is more like a wartime situation.’
French President Emmanuel Macron last night declared ‘war’ on the coronavirus impact, announcing a £300billion fund and guaranteeing that no business in the country will go under as a result of the crisis.
In the US, some politicians have been advocating so-called ‘helicopter money’ – cash handouts to the public to help keep the economy moving.
Earlier, Phones 4u mogul John Caudwell warned that the chaos will cost the economy ‘hundreds of billions of pounds, maybe trillions’.
Professor Azra Ghani, an infectious disease expert who is in the response team, said they couldn’t see a way out of the current shutdown unless a vaccine can be made.
She said: ‘We have explored a scenario where these measures stayed in place for five months, which is what is taking us through to the summer.
‘We haven’t found any way, at least in our understanding of this so far, that we can ever release these methods until some other intervention can be put in place.
‘So really, we are essentially waiting for a vaccine. A vaccine is not five months away. We know it’s at least 12 to 18 months away. So we will have difficult choices to make.’
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, admitted that social lockdown in Britain over coronavirus could last for long time.
‘This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,’ he said in a briefing at Downing Street yesterday.
‘People should be thinking of minimum of weeks to months and depending how it goes it could be longer. It is really important people realise they are in for the long haul on this.’
The Government brought forward the much stricter restrictions after it was stung by criticism that it was not moving as fast as other countries.
Ministers have been shocked by figures that suggest the UK will suffer more deaths than the current modelling had predicted.
Initially, Mr Johnson resisted pressure to bring in ‘social distancing’ for fear that people would get ‘crisis fatigue’ and abandon the practice just as the virus began to peak.
Yesterday’s measures went far further than previous advice, though they remain voluntary, so pubs are not required to shut, and people are not being ordered to stay at home.
Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, was the author of a study that suggested measures such as a ban on social gatherings could last for up to 18 months
A man is pictured wearing a face mask in London Waterloo station this morning. The UK is now on red alert for coronavirus and train services could soon be reduced or stopped as people work from home
A woman is pictured wearing a face mask in London Waterloo. People should avoid all ‘non-essential’ travel and contact with other people, the Government has warned
PM wants new ventilators ‘within weeks’
Boris Johnson wants a national effort to build vital ventilators for the NHS to be up and running within two weeks after the government issued a ‘call to arms’ to manufacturers to help respond to coronavirus.
The NHS only has 5,000 of the machines and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday it will need ‘many times more than that’ in the weeks and months ahead.
Mr Johnson wants non-health care companies to step up and help build the artificial respirators and last night he hosted a call with more than 60 company chiefs to urge them to convert production lines.
Participants with knowledge of the call said the government wants to have the ventilator push ‘on stream’ within the next fortnight.
It was claimed by one person who reportedly participated in the call that Mr Johnson had ‘joked’ the coordinated effort to build the machines could be known as ‘Operation Last Gasp’.
The person who made the claim to Politico said the PM ‘couldn’t help but act the clown’ as he hosted the call with CEOs.
Mr Johnson’s attempt to mobilise the UK’s manufacturing sector has drawn comparisons with a scrap metal scheme to build Spitfires during the Second World War.
Leading companies such as JCB and Dyson have been asked to divert resources to building more ventilators as the spread of the disease worsens.
A Downing Street spokesman said after yesterday’s call that manufacturers had been asked to ‘rise to this immediate challenge by offering skills and expertise as well as manufacturing the components themselves’.
‘Businesses can get involved in any part of the process: design, procurement, assembly, testing, and shipping,’ the spokesman said.
The Prime Minister said it was unlikely that curfews and criminal sanctions could be introduced in the near future to enforce this – but added that all measures are under review.
He said the UK already has extensive powers to deal with potential breaches of orders.
He told the press conference: ‘Most people would accept we are already a mature and liberal democracy where people understand very clearly the advice that is being given to them.’
The Imperial College London study revealed that had ministers continued to follow their relatively limited ‘mitigation’ strategy, around 11,000 patients would have needed intensive care at any one time, more than double NHS capacity.
The stricter measures could keep the number of patients in intensive care below 5,000, they said.
The report said vaccination was the ‘only exit strategy’ from the draconian measures announced yesterday. Modelling by the scientists says that school and university closures will be necessary to keep deaths to a minimum.
‘A minimum policy for effective suppression is therefore population-wide social distancing, combined with home isolation of cases and school and university closure,’ it says.
‘To avoid a rebound in transmission, these policies will need to be maintained until large stocks of vaccine are available – which could be 18 months or more.’
Professor Jason Mercer, a virus expert at the University of Birmingham, said: ‘Lessons learned in China and Italy suggest the time to act is now, before the curve goes exponential.
‘Without a vaccine or effective antiviral agents, rigorous social distancing measures: such as self-quarantine (especially for individuals in high-risk groups), cancelling public events, closing schools and work from home or paid leave programmes should be put in place.
‘Additionally, widespread infection testing, beyond probable cases, should be implemented to assure accurate surveillance.
‘While difficult to implement, these strategies have proven successful at slowing the spread of infection, not only with COVID-19 but with Smallpox and the 1918 influenza pandemic.
‘Italy, Spain, France and Germany have already implemented these strategies and the UK should follow suit. This may give the UK the time needed to build population level immunity which will serve to shield the most vulnerable and decrease mortality rates.’
Scientists around the world are in various stages of attempts to make a coronavirus vaccine, with some already trialling their jabs on human patients.
US researchers gave the first shot to the first person in a test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine on Monday, leading off a worldwide hunt for protection even.
With a careful jab in a healthy volunteer’s arm, scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle begin an anxiously awaited first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
The injection has been developed in record time after the new virus exploded from China and fanned across the globe.
‘We’re team coronavirus now,’ Kaiser Permanente study leader Dr Lisa Jackson said on the eve of the experiment. ‘Everyone wants to do what they can in this emergency.’
Jennifer Haller, 43, of Seattle, was the mother-of-two who became the first person to receive the potentially lifesaving jab. She said: ‘We all feel so helpless. This is an amazing opportunity for me to do something.
Ms Haller’s two teenage children ‘think it’s cool’ that she is taking part in the study, she said. Researchers will ultimately give two doses each to 45 volunteers.
Researchers are in the midst of a global race to try and find a vaccine and scientists at Imperial College London have been trialling their attempt at a vaccine on animals since mid-February.
And they could move onto human trials – the last phase of development before a drug can be used – as soon as April.
Jennifer Haller, 43, from Seattle, became the first patient to receive a trial coronavirus vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute
OPERATIONS WILL BE CANCELLED AS NHS ALREADY FEELING THE STRAIN
The NHS is calling off all non-emergency operations to free up resources to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Matt Hancock told MPs today.
As the UK death toll passed 50 the Health Secretary said all elective surgery that was not time sensitive would either be cancelled or postponed as the health service gears up for the worst of the pandemic.
This will include routine non-lifesaving surgeries such as hip and knee replacements and cataracts.
The news came as it emerged patients in their 40s with coronavirus are being put on ventilators in hospital.
Mr Hancock told a hushed Commons that ventilators were key to treating those suffering the worst effects of the disease and the Government has asked manufacturers to step up efforts to help in the production of kit needed.
He said: ‘The measures that I’ve just outlined are unprecedented in peacetime. We will fight this virus with everything we’ve got.
‘We are in a war against an invisible killer and we’ve got to do everything we can to stop it.’
An NHS anaesthetist yesterday revealed patients under the age of 40 have been hooked up to ventilators.
In an interview with Sky News, the anonymous medic added: ‘As little as two weeks ago my hospital was eerily quiet. Now they [patients] are coming in quickly.
‘We have well over 50 cases as of the weekend and our intensive care is nearly full of coronavirus patients on breathing support machines.
‘It is simply not true that only the very elderly who we can imagine ‘would have died soon anyway’ will get sick. I have looked after more than one patient who is in their early 60s with minor or no health complaints and who exercises regularly.
‘They are not your grandparents. They are your colleague, your boss, your Pilates buddy. They are people very much still contributing to society who would perform well on any standard measure of fitness.’
Meanwhile, US pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Inovio have also said they plan to start their own human trials next month.
The coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, cannot currently be cured or prevented. People who catch it have to be isolated and wait for their body to fight off the illness, with medical help if they need it for symptoms or more serious infection.
A working vaccine could stop the bug in its tracks – some experts think it could become a permanent fixture in human society in the same way colds and flu are.
The ongoing pandemic is devastating the global economy and wiping trillions of dollars off stock markets.
The UK’s FTSE 100 index lost its early gains today as it fell further by more than two per cent as investors soaked in the news of the Government’s increased measures to protect the UK against coronavirus – the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday came after the London Stock Exchange closed.
The index of Britain’s biggest companies had fallen three per cent or 153 points to 4,998 at about 9.30am this morning. That came after it opened up 147 points or 2.9 per cent to 5,298 shortly after 8am.
The early gains came amid hopes of joined-up global action to combat the coronavirus crisis, after leaders of the G7 group of countries agreed late last night to co-ordinate their response to the pandemic.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak will later set out a new package of support for businesses hit by the outbreak less than a week after announcing £12billion of emergency funding in the Budget.
Neil Wilson, at Markets.com, said he remained ‘dubious about any rallies having legs’ as market turbulence is set to continue.
He said: ‘Until there is better knowledge of the situation on the ground, until the economic damage is known, and until we see a genuine spike in cases in the US and Europe, volatility levels will remain extremely high.’
He added that City speculation is mounting over possible action by regulators to shut markets temporarily.
‘There had been chatter that regulators would start to think it’s time to call a halt to this, that they will step in to shutter stock markets for a limited period in an attempt to regain control of the situation,’ he said.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.