Coronavirus is less deadly than American drivers, lightning strikes, and fridges

A killer virus! A new killer virus! A new killer virus from foreigners who eat snakes ! Snakes that eat BATS! Stop all the planes, shut every Chinese branch of McDonalds, and let's panic-buy Pot Noodles and face masks, people! The End Times are ON.

At time of writing, the 'novel coronavirus' – makes it sound like something Dan Brown will be publishing just before Christmas, doesn't it? – has infected a confirmed 880 people and killed 26 of them. This is a mortality rate of just under 3%.

By comparison, ordinary 'flu infects up to 5million people a year, and kills anything up to 650,000 of them – a mortality rate of 13%.

The 1918 Spanish 'flu pandemic infected half a billion people worldwide, and after palling up with a bacterial superinfection thanks to World War I it killed about 4% of the global population. Bird flu, the last viral panic, has a mortality rate of 70% if you're unlucky enough to live with a sick chicken. Dengue fever affects 50m to 100m people every year, in an area in which 2billion people live and work.

The world's most deadly bug is the Marburg virus, which first surfaced in Germany in 1967 with Ebola-like symptoms and is feared to have been weaponised by the Soviets, but we don't know for sure and Vladimir Putin won't let anyone check.

And to bring us bang up to date, Lassa fever, which involves vomiting blood and is the 5th most deadly infection on the planet, is currently spreading across 11 states in Nigeria. It has killed 38 people so far. Updates about it are on the newswires, lying there unnoticed between all the reports of fireworks being cancelled, the Great Wall closed to tourists and Chinese hospitals running out of equipment as people are hunkered down at home, worrying about when the lights will go off.


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Snake 'flu, as it will surely become known, could turn out to be worse than all of those. The incubation period is 14 days, the Chinese government isn't known for telling people the truth, and if early work showing it jumped from bats to snakes to humans is true, this is a virus which evolved in a warm-blooded mammal, move to a cold-blooded reptile, and then hooked onto another warm-blooded mammal.

It's the equivalent of humans being able to survive happily under the polar ice cap, as well as inside a volcanic crater, and being able to mutate our DNA to switch between them. Hollywood scriptwriters would get laughed out of the room for suggesting it as a plot device in a horror movie.

The reputation of the Chinese government is such that conspiracy nuts will soon be claiming this whizzy new virus was made in a lab, and it might even be true.

But let us consider the lessons of the Black Death, the worst pandemic in human history. It travelled from the Far East to Europe via global trade routes, killed up to 200m people over years, and led to unprecedented social upheaval. Wages soared, the climate cooled, peasants revolted, and religious fervour led to massacres of the Jews and may even have lent a hand to the Spanish Inquisition.


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But the most important thing to remember about terrifying outbreaks is that we are descended from those who survived all the previous ones. Survived, moreover, with the benefit of medical interventions that included leeches, optional hand hygiene and keeping your fingers crossed.

The Black Death took everyone it could. More died of Spanish 'flu than perished on the Western Front. Bird 'flu, SARS, the Ebola virus, MRSA are still trying to mop up those it left behind. A new bug, or an old one in a population that no longer has whatever resilience we had that saved our forebears, could still present a threat.

But look at China – co-operating with outside authorities. Look at Heathrow airport – hustling medics airside to take temperatures. Look at the way the whole world is organising, talking, has already examined the viral DNA and has begun work on a vaccine.

And look at people suddenly learning about coronaviruses, which most of us have happily ignored in the 70 years since they were discovered.


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Coronaviruses are common, fairly harmless, and are of concern primarily for babies, the elderly, those with an existing respiratory condition, or a suppressed immune system, for example if they're undergoing cancer treatment. Those who have died are thought to have all been ill already, which weakened their ability to fight the bug. If the current rates of infection and mortality hold steady, in a city the size of New York or London, 0.008% of us would catch it and 0.0002% would die.

Those are odds that 99.9998% of us can, quite literally, live with.

That's no reason that anyone should die from a sniffle, which is why all the work being done to prevent the spread and fight the infection is a good thing. But a huge chunk of official action, and subsequent news coverage, is because communicable disease experts are finally getting a chance to prove what they can do, suit up and dust off the sexy new kit that's been sat in its wrapper since it was ordered.

It's doctor porn. Broadcasters get out their swipey screens, reporters pull out keffiyeh, politicians drop their voices an octave. It's all significantly more newsworthy than more people dying of a worse thing in huge areas of Nigeria, which has the annoying habit of not being as important as pretty much everywhere else.


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The biggest clue that the snake 'flu panic is mostly cosmetic is that the UK government has ordered a COBRA meeting, and the leader of said government will be somewhere else. Perhaps he thought it would involve a real cobra.

A few people dying is bad, but lots of people panicking is worse. Not just because you are more likely to be killed by an American diplomat's wife on the wrong side of the road, a lightning strike, or a faulty fridge -freezer in a tower block, but because everything that you see is better than you realise.

Totalitarian government is finally being useful, enabling the Chinese government to lock down a city of 11million people who are mostly doing as they're told. It could never be attempted anywhere else, and is unarguably controlling infection rates. The Chinese state, due to global concerns, social media and previous outbreaks, is better prepared and more open than ever before.

All the haz-mat suits, the face shields, the centrifuges in laboraties worldwide spinning viral DNA, and greater public awareness is all good practice for a plague which really would kill us – a blacker death, if you like, than the one which, to this day, compels us to say 'bless you' when we sneeze.


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Panicking is unnecessary, but that's not to say it's without benefits. Public fear is a great motivator, and makes governments work harder, and spend money that has no clear profit for them. There are quite a lot of governments, after all, for whom a small cull might be considered a solution to some of their problems.

But when they can buy calm, or votes, or a world in which supermarket shelves remain properly stocked, such money gets spent. Money that scientists need and otherwise don't get, and which, with a future virus worth worrying about, could mean the difference between life and death.

The real news is that a new virus was spotted quickly, the world knows what to do about it, and most of us won't be dead by teatime. If only they could say the same in Nigeria, hey?

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