Don't Panic - Plan! The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Outbreak

I'm not going to say much about the coronavirus outbreak: it's just too early to guess what will happen. Will China's lockdown be effective? Will this virus mutate and die out like SARS? Or will it cause havoc everywhere? We can't answer these questions yet. But we can do one thing...

Getting Reliable Information

Beware of press reports which are often more interested in getting you to watch the news than presenting balanced reporting. I suggest the following sources of information:

  • For some up to date (30 January 2020) scientific background on the current outbreak, the "Science Vs." podcast Coronavirus Outbreak: How Scared Should You Be? provides good science-based information, with useful comparisons to other infectious diseases for transmissibility and mortality.
  • For background on pandemics and a good description of the SARS outbreak, the Netflix series "Explained" season 2 episode "The Next Pandemic" published in November 2019 is a prescient look at the risks of pandemics. This explains the origins of new viruses, and outlines what could happen without excessive sensationalism.
  • The Centers for Disease Control has information for the general public and health care professionals alike. It is well worth a visit.
  • The World Health Organization section on 2019-nCoV gives the latest advice for governments, health care institutions, health care professionals, and the general public.

Perspective

Will politicians play up or play down the risks for their own agendas? Definitely.

Will television journalists report the most sensational story with the best pictures or the story which reflects reality? What do you expect?

To keep everything in perspective, it's worth comparing this with the influenza pandemics which spread across the world each year. Each year there are 3-5 million serious cases of influenza and up to 650,000 respiratory deaths associated with them.

Coronaviruses are very common — you've probably had at least one in the past year — and a lot is still unknown about this one. At the time of writing it looks like 2019-nCoV (it's working name) is currently a little bit more likely to be transmitted than influenza (one person is likely to infect about 1.5 others, versus 1.4 for influenza), and the mortality is 2-5% of those people with serious enough symptoms to seek medical help. For comparison, seasonal flu has an estimated mortality rate of 0.1%, and the 1918 flu pandemic had an estimated mortality rate of 2-3%.

SARS (another coronavirus) had a very high mortality rate initially, but this reduced rapidly as the virus mutated, so it's too early to know whether any comparison to a previous major epidemic is valid. (Studies of current mutations suggest the virus originated in November 2019 — so compared to past pandemics this one was identified and countermeasures were taken to limit its spread very quickly).

What Next?

As I noted earlier, at the time of writing it's too early to tell how the virus will mutate and how effective the steps being taken to prevent transmission will be. An effective vaccination (f needed) is at least a year away, so expect quarantine measures rather than mass vaccinations.

But now is a good opportunity to review your emergency planning for pandemics, and consider such questions as:

  • What would the effects of a local outbreak be on staff?
  • Will staff travel restrictions have any major effects?
  • Could you continue operation if staff needed to be quarantined?
  • Could some work be conducted at home?
  • Can the chances of transmission in the workplace be reduced? Can key staff be isolated? Can cleaning be improved?
  • How will suppliers be affected? Will they still be able to supply?
  • How will customers be affected? Will they want less (or more) of what you produce?

Remember that your plan may not need a major pandemic to trigger it: just a bad year for seasonal flu.

Further Resources

2 February 2020

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