The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) appears to spread more easily than the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, but is less severe in terms of the number of deaths, Hong Kong-based Professor Malik Peiris, who played a critical role in identifying SARS in 2003, told The Indian Express. However, the new strain of coronavirus is “more severe” than the 2009 Influenza A (H1N1), he said. Follow Coronavirus outbreak LIVE Updates
Recognised as one of the 10 ‘Science stars of East Asia’ by scientific journal Nature in 2018, Malik became internationally recognised when his laboratory became the first to isolate SARS, another kind of coronavirus, in 2003. He also developed a rapid diagnostic test for SARS-coronavirus using real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR).
When contacted in Hong Kong, Malik said the new strain of coronavirus appears to be more transmissible than SARS. “However, it seems to be less severe than SARS in terms of hospital admissions and mortality. The 2019 Novel Coronavirus is still more severe than the 2009 pandemic Influenza A (H1N1),” said Malik, a public health virologist with the University of Hong Kong who has developed a test to identify the 2019 Novel Coronavirus and also shared the reagents with other countries.
According to reports, at least 132 people have died and almost 6,000 cases of Novel Coronavirus have been confirmed in China. There are more than 80 cases across 19 countries outside China. India is yet to report a case of Novel Coronavirus. Till Tuesday, 22 cases had tested negative for the virus at Pune’s National Institute of Virology.
Annually, an estimated 2.9 to 6.5 lakh people across the world die due to complications from seasonal influenza (flu) viruses. SARS was a coronavirus that originated in Beijing, China, and spread in 2002-3 to 29 countries with 8,096 people infected and 774 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in US had in 2012 estimated the global death toll from the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic at more than 2.84 lakh — about 15 times the number of laboratory confirmed cases.
“The 2019-nCoV is somewhere between SARS and the 2009 pandemic influenza (H1N1),” Prof Malik said. “The pandemic influenza was extremely transmissible. We know that this Novel Coronavirus is more transmissible than SARS. But we do not know how much transmissible it is than the 2009 influenza pandemic. These are questions remaining to be answered but the severity is significantly lower than SARS,” he reiterated.
However, in a study done by NIV in 2009-10, then Director A C Mishra had reported pandemic influenza to be of moderate severity. When contacted, M S Chadha, who was also one of the authors of the NIV study, explained that if the new cornonavirus does come to India, “we will have to wait and watch how it behaves in the Indian population. Globally, the pandemic influenza was considered mild, but it was moderately severe in India,” Chadha said.
Malik said, “Our test identifying the Novel Coronavirus is up on the WHO website and will be published in an international journal soon. We have successfully used the test to detect several cases in Hong Kong and sent reagents to other countries. So it is working well. The advantage of this test is that it reacts with a number of closely-related viruses related to SARS and Bat SARS-like coronavirus (W1V1). Even if the virus undergoes mutation, the test will be able to pick it up,” Malik said.
The virologist said he wouldn’t be surprised to see mutations as these are RNA viruses which undergo changes. “As far as we can see, there are no mutations that can be said to make this virus more virulent or less virulent and likewise more transmissible or less transmissible,” he said. “We still do not know enough of this coronavirus to be able to look at the genetic sequence and then say this is making the virus more transmissible or less,” he pointed out.
According to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation, the information on epidemiology and transmission as well as case fatality rate is evolving all the time. “Right now, the PCR test is the recommended one for diagnosis. Because of the early sharing of sequence data by the Chinese, it was possible to develop diagnostics as well as identify vaccine targets,” she said.
WHO is coordinating the R&D for nCoV-diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines as well as clinical presentation, animal reservoir, transmission and epidemiology. “We will hold a global partners meeting in mid February,” she added.
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