Coronavirus: WHO sets the record straight on facts and misinformation

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A still image from a time-lapse video of a growing novel coronavirus in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by: Dr. Julian Druce / The Doherty Institute

MANILA — There’s no shortage of information when it comes to the novel coronavirus that was first reported among infected individuals in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. But the amount of information — and the speed in which it’s produced — is outpacing investigations and what authorities truly know about the virus.

Over the past two weeks, there has been speculation and assumptions about the virus, from its origin to how it’s transmitted to and between humans. One study suggested snakes as the source of the virus. Trending posts on social media meanwhile suggest bat soup as the culprit. But in reality, the source of the current outbreak remains unknown.

To sift through the clutter of information, Devex reached out to the World Health Organization, the United Nations’ lead health agency mandated by countries to provide detailed guidance and information on public health issues, to understand what is known and still unknown about the virus.

There are still more questions than answers about the 2019-nCoV.

How is the virus transmitted?

During the SARS and MERS outbreaks, human-to-human transmission occurred through droplets, contact, and fomites, or objects and materials that are likely to carry infection. This suggests, experts said, that the 2019-nCoV’s mode of transmission can be similar. However, that’s not certain.

“So far we do not have enough evidence to determine [the] exact mode of transmission. There is some person to person transmission occurring. We still need more analysis of the epidemiological data to understand the full extent of this transmission,” said WHO Spokesperson Tarik Jašarević.

The same is true for the virus’ transmissibility rates, Jašarević said.

Numerous modeling studies have been published online that provide information on transmissibility rates of the virus. But WHO says this still requires further analysis.

Can the virus be transmitted when a person is asymptomatic?

This is also unknown. Jašarević said WHO is working with networks of specialists to analyze the virus’ full genome sequences as they become available, but that the U.N. agency has not received evidence of the virus changing as of Jan. 28.

The virus’ incubation period is also still under investigation.

“Current estimates of the incubation period range from 2-10 days, and these estimates will be refined as more data becomes available. Understanding the time when infected patients may transmit the virus to others is critical for control efforts.

“In previous outbreaks of other coronaviruses, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), some individuals can be asymptomatic and transmit to others. Detailed epidemiological information from more people infected is needed to determine the infectious period of 2019-nCoV,” he said.

Track the development of the coronavirus as it unfolds.

How fatal is the 2019-nCoV?

“The mortality rate at the moment seems to be around 2-4% based on reports from Chinese authorities,” Jašarević said.

Are deaths only happening among older people close to 50 years old and above?

Most of those who died were old people with serious underlying health conditions and weakened immune systems, based on information WHO has received from Chinese authorities. However, “this is a new disease and our understanding is changing rapidly,” Jašarević said.

What’s the rate of severe cases recovering and the rate of severe cases dying?

As of this writing, there are currently 1,239 total severe cases reported in China. But Jašarević said WHO does not have information on how many severe cases have recovered and how many severe cases have died.

What’s the source of the outbreak?

“According to the Chinese authorities, and as part of the ongoing epidemiological investigations, experts collected environmental samples from the Huanan seafood market and the test results showed that some samples were tested positive for the 2019-nCoV, although an animal source of the outbreak has not been found yet. In parallel, investigations are also conducted in other food markets of Wuhan city,” Jašarević said.

Is there person-to-person transmission occurring in countries reporting imported cases?

The two confirmed cases in Vietnam involve a Chinese national who traveled from Wuhan to Vietnam and one of his family members.

“This might be a suspected case of human to human transmission between close contacts, in a family cluster, but the authorities are still investigating the two cases and further contact tracing is ongoing,” Jašarević said.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.