Coronovirus closer to influenza than SARS, says expert

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on February 18, 2020

Dr. Peter Piot

With vaccine and drugs elusive for now, situation is worrisome: Peter Piot

The novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-2019) is proving to be closer to influenza than SARS, as more and more information emerges, said Peter Piot, a global expert on viruses and co-discoverer of the Ebola virus.

Though the virus is from the same family that caused the SARS (South Asia Respiratory Syndrome) in 2013, originating in Hong Kong and China, the difference is in the rate of infection and mortality, said Piot. If 10 per cent of those infected by SARS died, the mortality rate at present due to COVID-2019 is just around 1 per cent, he added.

However, the infection rate is very high. In China alone, about 70,000 cases have been reported, with 1,700 deaths. With a vaccine more than six months away and drugs not in the immediate horizon, the best bet is ‘precautions, containment and quarantine’, said Piot, who is the Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“My life has been devoted to the study of viruses. At the moment, the situation is worrisome on the COVID-2019 front,” said Piot, who contributed to the isolation and discovery of the Ebola virus way back in 1976.

Incomplete information

The Belgian born microbiologist, who is here to take part in the ongoing BioAsia 2020 event, said: “Information from China is always not complete. Ironically, Hubei and Wuhan provinces, which are the worst affected, are also the largest manufacturers of masks and surgical and medical equipment; yet there seems to be a shortage there.”

What is making the COVID-2019 more challenging is its nature of transmission — through the respiratory route — which is rather quick. Ebola spreads more through personal contact or food. The best strategy for the present would be screening and keeping track of everybody coming from China, said Piot.

Treatment options

Asked about the treatment options, the 71-year-old researcher, who has worked for decades on combating HIV/AIDS as the executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme, said: “A vaccine or effective drug is at least six months away. Though it is possible to develop a candidate, it has to go through animal and human trials and then be manufactured.”

Over 2,300 people have been killed so far due to Ebola, he said. However, it is limited to Africa. There is a vaccine and at least two drugs to combat it. The second largest outbreak of the epidemic is on in Congo at present, with one or two cases reported daily. It will keep coming back, but effective control mechanisms are also evolving, Piot said.

Published on February 18, 2020

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