China’s deadly coronavirus may have the same death rate as Spanish flu, an expert has warned.
Deaths from the new virus rose to 17 on Wednesday with hundreds of cases now confirmed, increasing fears of widespread contagion.
The previously unknown flu-like coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from an animal market in central Wuhan city, with cases now detected as far away as the US.
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is widely regarded as “the deadliest in history”, and is believed to have infected around 500 million people worldwide, killing between 20 and 50 million.
READ MORE: What is the mystery illness affecting China?
Chinese officials have confirmed 440 cases of the new coronavirus strain – 2019-nCoV – so far, with 17 deaths.
Based on existing data, the disease is said to have a 2% death rate. This means that for every 50 people who catch the infection, one will statistically die.
To put this into context, around one in every 1,000 who develop flu die, giving it a death rate of 0.1%.
“This [2019-nCoV’s death rate] could be 2%, similar to Spanish flu,” said Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London.
Professor Peter Horby from the University of Oxford pointed out that fatality estimations are based on “clinical data around hospital cases”.
Of those in hospital, “15%-to-20% are severe cases”, defined as needing ventilation.
Coronaviruses as a class are common, causing everything from the common cold to epidemics like severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).
2019-nCoV is thought to have originated in animals before “jumping” over to humans.
“Novel viruses spread much faster because we have no immunity,” Prof Ferguson said.
Fatalities are occurring as a result of pneumonia, which comes about when a respiratory infection causes the alveoli (air sacs) in the lungs to become inflamed and filled with fluid or pus, according to the American Lung Association.
The lungs then struggle to draw in air, resulting in reduced oxygen in the bloodstream.
“Without treatment the end is inevitable,” said the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
“Deaths occurs because of asphyxiation.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned there is no specific treatment for coronaviruses
If the infection triggers pneumonia, doctors work to combat the complication.
When a virus is to blame – like 2019-nCoV – pneumonia may be treated via “antiviral medication”, according to the American Lung Association.
What is the coronavirus 2019-nCoV?
The city of Wuhan is at the centre of the outbreak, which likely originated from infected animals at a market.
Most of those who initially fell ill worked at, or visited, the market.
China’s National Health Commission confirmed the virus can spread person-to-person, with patients in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
Cases have also arisen in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and the US.
Prof Ferguson claims Wuhan likely has around 4,000 cases, Yahoo UK reported.
Like other strains of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV typically starts with flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.
Six coronaviruses are known to infect people, with this strain being the “seventh”.
The pathogens trigger mild-to-moderate upper respiratory tract infections, like the common cold, according to the CDC.
In rarer cases, coronaviruses can lead to lower-respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.
These tend to occur in babies, the elderly or those with weak immune systems.
Coronaviruses commonly spread via coughing, sneezing, shaking hands or touching a contaminated object.
The virus enters the body if contaminated hands touch the eyes, nose or mouth.
In rare cases, faecal contamination is to blame.
US health officials are working on a vaccine against 2019-nCoV; however, it will likely be months before the first stage of trials are underway and more than a year before one is available to the public, CNN reported.
For now, the World Health Organization advises people avoid “unprotected” contact with live animals, thoroughly cook meat and eggs, and stay away from those with flu-like symptoms.