Coronavirus V the flu: Which is more deadly?

ONCE again, a new virus has emerged from the wild to infect us.

This has happened many times in the past (think HIV, SARS, or Hendravirus from right here in Queensland).

The new coronavirus from Wuhan in China has now passed 2000 cases and more than 80 deaths and it has spread to Australia, Europe and North America.

If this was a movie the cast would now be in a panic with drastic action being considered.

In real life, more people died of influenza virus in the US in the last 24 hours than the entire coronavirus toll to date (around seven weeks).

That's right, there have been an estimated 8200 deaths from flu since October 1, 2019, which is 78 per day, according to the CDC.

Yet we are fine with this, no panic, no screening and no quarantine measures. So, what's the difference? Should we be worried?

We do have a very effective vaccine against flu but none for coronavirus (although University of Queensland researchers are now developing one).

Another concern about this virus is there is some suggestion that it is infectious before symptoms show.

Also, it has learned to jump from human to human, a neat trick. As with most viruses we have no specific treatment. The good news is that people in good health seem to deal with the illness well, as Chinese health authorities report that most of the deaths are in those over 50 with underlying medical problems.

And this virus is much less lethal than its cousins, SARS and MERS viruses.




One thing that is very different about this virus outbreak is social media.

The information is spreading much faster than the virus itself. In 2003, when the SARS coronavirus leapt out of China to kill 800 people, we didn't even have the iPhone, let alone Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Today, everyone knows this virus is out there, is looking out for it, and hopefully knows how to respond.

This is going to be very important to our success in limiting its spread.

So we should be wary, but everyone can take a deep breath and be assured that those paid to worry, our health authorities, have this well covered. Carry on with your normal activities but take some basic measures. Honestly, it's as simple as washing your hands - but more often than you do now.

This is good advice for every respiratory virus including influenza and all the viruses that cause the common cold, which includes coronavirus, by the way.

A friend is travelling to Asia next week and ask me today what she should do. Simple - wash your hands often, wear a mask if you wish, and do as much as possible to avoid close contact with obviously sick people (those coughing and sneezing).

Why a mask? In the very first lecture of my Infectious Disease class I always greet one late student with a handshake, having told the rest of class this would happen. I ask them to observe the late arrival to see how long before they touch their face, nose or mouth.

Within 2-3 minutes the class will erupt as the student inevitably scratches their face or some such.

We all do it (I bet you did it while reading this). The point is, masks do not stop you breathing in a virus (they are too small anyway). They stop you infecting yourself once you have touched an infected surface. This is the most common means of infection.




What if you think you have coronavirus? Firstly, go to your GP or local emergency department as soon as possible.

The good news is that you are highly unlikely to be infected in Australia right now unless you have been to Wuhan or are in contact with someone who has been there.

The trick for us to stopping this virus is to make sure we identify and isolate infected people as early as possible. Quarantine has been a tried-and-true measure to stop the spread of disease for thousands of years. It is mentioned in the Bible, by Hippocrates, and all throughout history. Ebola, our most deadly virus at present, can be controlled by limiting its ability to spread. Keeping infected patients at home or in hospital isolation wards is just best practice. But everyone needs to help to make sure this happens.

Coronaviruses have jumped to man before, and they will again.

New viruses are appearing all the time. But for now, there is no need for panic. We are in good hands and our health authorities are doing all the right things.

As long as we all do our part with personal hygiene and seeking medical assistance when ill, this virus should have limited effect here.


Professor Nigel McMillan is the Director of the Infection and Immunity Program at GRIFFITH UNIVERSITY