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Debapriya MukherjeeThe deadly outbreak of viral pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, China caused by a novel coronavirus designated COVID 19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), also known as the Wuhan coronavirus, is again a clear sign to lack of coordinated global response to this catastrophe despite killing close to 1,400 and with almost…





Debapriya Mukherjee

The deadly outbreak of viral pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, China caused by a novel coronavirus designated COVID 19 by the World Health Organization (WHO), also known as the Wuhan coronavirus, is again a clear sign to lack of coordinated global response to this catastrophe despite killing close to 1,400 and with almost 65,000 confirmed ill. The WHO has warned the virus poses a “grave threat” to the world, and the virus could have “more powerful consequences than any terrorist action”.

All major Chinese New Year events were cancelled along with all other large-scale activities, including temple fairs. That was never happened in Chinese history. Also, Lunar New Year holiday was extended in a bid to prevent an infection whose spread accelerated around the globe. Since the virus is not yet under control, China has locked down 13 cities as aggressive steps to limit movement for millions of people who live in cities near the centre of the outbreak. More than 2,835 cases have been reported in 15 countries and territories. Overseas confirmed cases have been reported in Thailand (7), Japan (3), South Korea (3), the United States (3), Vietnam (2), Singapore (4), Malaysia (3), Nepal (1), France (3), Australia (4) and Sri Lanka (1). However, no positive case has been detected in India so far though samples of seven passengers have been sent to the ICMR-NIV Pune lab. Over 100 people have been kept under observation in Kerala and Maharashtra. The Prime Minister’s Office reviewed India’s preparedness to deal with any situation amid mounting global concern over rising cases in China.

Coronaviruses (CoVs) have long been considered inconsequential pathogens to humans causing the “common cold”. In case of this new virus, the detailed information is not adequate even though the pathogen was identified relatively quickly. Genomic sequencing has shown that it is a positive-sense, single-stranded RNA coronavirus and its transmission from human to human is increasing. Without detail information particularly confirmation of source , uncertainty has prevailed about the virus that explores humans for the first time because once virus replicating inside a cell can start to generate mutations and allow it to spread more efficiently and become more dangerous. Probably animals sold for food are the reservoir or the intermediary because many of the first identified infected individuals were workers at the Huanan seafood wholesale market where poultry, snake, bats, and other farm animals were also sold. Earlier a market selling live animals for food was blamed in the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003.

China has been the epicentre of emerging and re-emerging viral infections that continue to stir a global concern. In the last 20 years, China has witnessed several emerging viral diseases, including an avian influenza in 1997, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS-CoV) in 2003, a severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS) in 2010 and a Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2012. The two outbreaks of severe respiratory tract infection, caused by the SARS-CoV and, as a result of zoonotic CoVs crossing the species barrier, causing global epidemics with alarming morbidity and mortality. They jump from one species, where they went unnoticed, into humans. In 2003, the global SARS outbreak led to 774 deaths with 8,098 affected and cost the global economy billions of dollars. Effective public health measures brought the outbreak to an end. SARS is caused by a member of the coronavirus family of viruses (the same family that can cause the common cold). It is believed the 2003 epidemic started when the virus spread from small mammals in China. Another CoV jumped from animals to humans in 2012 to cause of MERS that has killed 858 out of the 2,494.

The ultimate scope and effect of this outbreak is unclear at present as the situation is rapidly evolving. This brought CoVs global attention and highlighted the importance of controlling infectious pathogens at international borders. The viral pneumonia outbreak was not caused by SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, influenza virus, or adenovirus as determined by laboratory tests. According to China’s top virologist Yi Guan. Probable scale of a full outbreak can reach at least ten times that of SARS. In spite of that there is no sign yet of a cure except symptomatic treatment.

The coronavirinae family consists of four genera based on their genetic properties, including genus Alphacoronavirus, genus Betacoronavirus, genus Gammacoronavirus, and genus Deltacoronavirus and are endemic globally and account for 10% to 30% of upper respiratory tract infections in adults. Coronaviruses are ecologically diverse with the greatest variety seen in bats. They are the reservoirs for many of these viruses. Peridomestic mammals may serve as intermediate hosts, facilitating recombination and mutation events with expansion of genetic diversity.

The coronavirus RNA genome (ranging from 26 to 32 kb) is the largest among all RNA viruses. Based on sound scientific evidences it is reported that the COVID 19 was a recombinant virus between the bat coronavirus and an origin-unknown coronavirus. The recombination occurred within the viral spike glycoprotein, which recognizes cell surface receptor. Snakes particularly the Chinese krait and the Chinese cobra are the most probable wildlife animal reservoir for the COVID 19.

The homologous recombination within the spike glycoprotein may contribute to cross-species transmission from snake to humans. Homologous recombination is an important evolutionary force and homologous recombination occurred in many viruses, including Dengue virus, human immunodeficiency virus, hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus and classical swine fever virus. Currently, scientists believe it is either bats, snakes, or both and unregulated wild animal trading leaves areas vulnerable to virus spillover. Preliminary research suggested the virus was passed on to humans from snakes, but government medical adviser Zhong Nanshan has also identified badgers and rats as possible sources.

With some viral diseases, the virus did not transmit before people developed symptoms. Such outbreaks are relatively easy to stop – identify and isolate people who are sick and monitor anyone they came into contact with. In case of this virus, people are infected but don’t have any symptoms and not feeling sick. Thereby people infected by this virus are still going to work or school, taking public transit, shopping in malls, or going to movies and pass the viruses to others. But stopping such “symptomless spreaders” will make the job of the Chinese authorities much difficult to screen people infected by the virus.

Coronavirus can infect humans and many different animal species, including swine, cattle, horses, camels, cats, dogs, rodents, birds, bats, rabbits, ferrets, mink, snake, and other wildlife animals. Many coronavirus infections are subclinical. Reported symptoms of individuals infected by the new virus have included fever, fatigue, dry cough, shortness of breath, and respiratory distress. Cases of severe infection can result in pneumonia, kidney failure, and death. WHO Director-General stated that a quarter of those infected experienced severe disease, and that many of those who died had other conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease that impaired their immune systems. A study reported that a majority of the patients were healthy before contracting the infection, and that over a quarter of previously healthy individuals required intensive care. Among the majority of those hospitalized, vital signs were stable on admission, and they had low white blood cells counts and low lymphocytes. Major cause of spreading this infection is the size and density of the population and close contact with animals, the reservoir of viruses. One research group has estimated the basic reproduction number of the virus to be between 3 and 5 meaning it typically infects 3 to 5 people per established infection. Other research groups have estimated the basic reproduction number to be between 1.4 and 3.8.

Right now, it has been recommended that travellers avoid all nonessential travel to China. In addition, people travelling practice certain health precautions like avoiding contact with people who are sick and practising good hand hygiene as there is no specific medicine to treat the infected patients without being panicked. .

Most importantly at this point it is impossible to know how severe it would be. Now there is emergent need to take preventive measure shortly otherwise there will be a pandemic. Immediately global health policymakers must start planning to deal with global spread of the new virus. Such plans need to include far more aggressive efforts to develop a vaccine than have already been announced.

The writer ius Former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board, based in Kolkata and can be reached at 919432370163 & 916290099509 or [email protected]

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