Naked Scientists’ Chris Smith says most coronavirus sufferers remain unidentified
A ‘Coronavirus Question Time’ panel will discuss the spread of the disease on March 19 in Cambridge.
The experts at the session will include Dr Chris Smith, a consultant virologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and founder of the Naked Scientists podcast and radio show, and Dr Freya Jephcott, from the Department of Veterinary Medicine and Queens’ College, Cambridge.
Dr Smith said the purpose of the event is to clarify the science behind the outbreak and to help people make smarter choices about how to respond to it, just as Cambridge records its first coronavirus patient.
He also believes there are far more people carrying the virus than the number so far identified – which is several hundred in the UK to date, with the dead now in double figures.
“I suspect there’s a big undercurrent of people with the virus in the community,” the broadcaster and scientist told the Cambridge Independent. “There are a number of cases with no connection to travel or industry and if these are the ones we know about there’s probably a lot more people we don’t know about who have it, and are giving it to those that do.
“No one has been down this path before,” he added. “These viruses have a head start on us of thousands to millions of years, and we are playing catch up.
“Coronaviruses probably began jumping into our species thousands of years ago, probably when an animal snuggled up to a human.”
Getting to grips with the facts is always a good place to start: first, the incubation period.
“The median is four days for incubation,” says Dr Smith. “The longest is 11 days so far, so 14 days gives a safety margin which takes into account re-exposure.”
Next, the mortality rate compared with standard influenza.
“In an average year the ’flu mortality rate is 0.05 per cent; it may be 0.1 per cent in a bad year. It’s 0.05 per cent in the US this year.
“The mortality rate for this virus varies depending on who you ask, but it could be 1 per cent – and as I say there could be an enormous number of cases we don’t know about.”
Dr Smith points out that 50 million people died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
With Covid-19’s one per cent, “if you extrapolate that to the world today, it’s 50 million or maybe 100 million”.
With that horrendous potential toll - mainly but not exclusively among over-70s - in mind, it’s hardly surprising people are panicking.
“People are not being irrational,” Dr Smith notes, “it’s just that they don’t know what to believe or think, and they wake up and they read that 80 per cent are going to get this virus so what we’re doing to prepare is very reassuring. A very tiny minority are having problems, and most are very minor problems, but no one has immunity, and you’re catching all the vulnerable people at once. Most experts agree a safe vaccine is more than a year away because you have to prove it’s safe and then scale it and deploy it.”
Dr Smith works half the week at Addenbrooke’s Hospital’s Department of Microbiology, so is well aware of what the worst-case scenarios will do to our already stretched health services.
“The concern is if an entire wave hits at once, in one fell swoop, it’ll overwhelm the system and people will die because they can’t get to hospital – it’s the domino effect.
“So if you encourage people to stay at home, you do put up a barrier on the spread of the virus – it won’t stop it, but it will slow the rate of spread.”
The way the world has slowed down in the last few weeks, with air flights cancelled and even China’s CO2 emissions massively reduced due to the loss of output, has been very illuminating.
“It brings into sharp relief how interconnected everything is,” replies Dr Smith. “If there’s no petrol, you can’t do shopping trips and there’s no food. The health service is set up for day-to-day help, not for a pandemic, so there may be cancelled operations, or less healthcare generally.
“After the ebola outbreak in West Africa, a lot more people died from malaria than ebola, because ebola overwhelmed the fragile health infrastructure. The NHS is geared up for winter ’flu, where we know our case burden, but with something like this, you can’t have a service that suddenly readapts itself to ventilate half the population.
“It’s very tricky. No one can be criticised, because no one saw this one coming, that’s probably why the city of Wuhan [where the outbreak started] built two new hospitals in January – what did they know that they didn’t tell us? The wake-up call is how addicted we’ve become to cheap stuff from China. People are wondering if we want to place so many economic eggs in one basket.”
Dr Smith is not a fan of masks for general use: “Masks don’t work – don’t bother,” he suggests.
So are we over-reacting?
“Yes and no. It’s important to be cautious because this hasn’t circulated before, and there’s some concern as the Chinese data may not be reliable – they have ‘form’ – so until we have our own data we can’t be sure.”
The Q&A format at the Cambridge Judge Business School on March 19 sounds intriguing.
“We’re quite good at this,” says the Naked Scientists creator and editor, who started the show eight years ago. “We do it on the radio. No question is too stupid. It’s not going to be a talk, it’s a debate – the coronavirus equivalent of the BBC’s Question Time; no ‘death by PowerPoint’ or mini-lectures. From the get-go, it’ll be reacting to people’s questions.”
Will there be further talks?
“We’ll see how this one goes, but certainly on the radio we’re doing a lot of questions about this topic.
“The irony of creating a mass public gathering to talk about a disease that likes mass public gatherings has not escaped me.”
The Cambridge Enterprise and Technology Club presents ‘Coronavirus: Global Impact?’ at the Cambridge Judge Business School, 6-9pm on March 19.