DIY coronavirus antibody tests are still being evaluated – despite promises to start rolling them out in mid-April, a senior Government official today admitted.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s medical director, said the millions of kits Number 10 had ordered in principle were ‘under investigation’.
Her comments came after one manufacturer of a finger-prick kits warned it could take six weeks for them to have any antibody tests ready for Britons to use at home.
BioSure, one of the firms in talks with the Government to make 17.5million home-kits, has been asked to get ready to ramp up production.
But no DIY antibody tests have been approved yet, meaning the company is holding off on mass-producing the kits in case stringent medical tests fail.
Brigette Bard, BioSure’s chief executive, warned the delay could mean it won’t have any kits ready for Britons to use in the comfort of their own home until mid-May.
Last night it was claimed that officials had finally agreed deals to purchase millions of home antibody tests to start being used in the UK by mid-April.
It comes as ministers were today facing a furious backlash after it emerged the UK is still not carrying out 10,000 tests a day – despite claims the level had been hit.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s medical director, said the millions of kits Number 10 had ordered in principle were ‘under investigation’
NHS staff get tested for the coronavirus at a facility specifically for health workers in Surrey
A testing station has been set up for NHS workers only in Chessington, Surrey. Healthcare staff are crying out for regular testing so they can be sure they are safe to work with patients
WHAT IS AN ANTIBODY TEST, AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT TO AN ANTIGEN OR SWAB TEST?
An antibody test is one which tests whether someone’s immune system is equipped to fight a specific disease or infection.
When someone gets infected with a virus their immune system must work out how to fight it off and produce substances called antibodies.
These are extremely specific and are usually only able to tackle one strain of one virus. They are produced in a way which makes them able to latch onto that specific virus and destroy it.
For example, if someone catches COVID-19, they will develop COVID-19 antibodies for their body to use to fight it off.
The body then stores versions of these antibodies in the immune system so that if it comes into contact with that same virus again it will be able to fight it off straight away and probably avoid someone feeling any symptoms at all.
To test for these antibodies, medics or scientists can take a fluid sample from someone – usually blood – and mix it with part of the virus to see if there is a reaction between the two.
If there is a reaction, it means someone has the antibodies and their body knows how to fight off the infection – they are immune. If there is no reaction it means they have not had it yet.
Antibody tests differ to a swab test, known as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which aims to pick up on active viruses currently in the bloodstream.
A PCR test works by a sample of someone’s genetic material – their RNA – being taken to lab and worked up in a full map of their DNA at the time of the test.
This DNA can then be scanned to find evidence of the virus’s DNA, which will be embroiled with the patient’s own if they are infected at the time.
The PCR test is more reliable but takes longer, while the antibody test is faster but more likely to produce an inaccurate result. It does not look for evidence of past infection.
Antigens are parts of a virus that trigger the immune system’s response to fight the infection, and can show up in blood before antibodies are made.
The key advantage of antigen tests is that it can take several days for the immune system to develop enough antibodies to be picked up by a test, whereas antigens can be seen almost immediately after infection.
Antigen tests are used to diagnose patients with flu, as well as malaria, strep A and HIV.
In tonight’s Downing Street press conference, Professor Doyle said the tests would be point-of-care, meaning they could be done ‘in the home’.
She added: ‘This testing needs to be evaluated to make sure it is valid- in other words, that it does what it says and at scale.
‘This would be large numbers. We want to make sure we are doing something that is safe and is actually valid and correct when it is ready.’
Her comments echo the concerns of England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, who last week warned that the only thing worse than no test was a bad test.
Britain has repeatedly been criticised for its controversial testing policy to only swab patients in hospital for the killer coronavirus.
It means the true size of the Britain’s outbreak is a mystery because officials have no idea who is actually infected.
A top Government adviser today suggested up to 2million people may already have caught the deadly coronavirus.
And University of Oxford scientists last week claimed that up to half of the UK could have already caught the disease, called COVID-19.
But official figures show 20,000 patients have tested positive. The death toll currently stands at around 1,200.
The World Health Organization earlier this month warned the only way to get a grip on the escalating pandemic was to ‘test, test, test’.
Confusion has surrounded Britain’s plan to buy millions of antibody kits, which last week it was revealed would have to be sent off in the post.
Professor Doyle said samples would need to be sent to a lab and analysed by specialists – a process that could take as long as a day.
It is unclear who makes the antibody kits that would need to be posted – Number 10 has been tight-lipped regarding the whole testing regime.
But the Government is also still in talks with firms that produce home-testing kits, which can give results in 10 minutes.
Number 10 originally claimed to have ordered 3.5million kits in principle. It is unclear whether these relate strictly to just the postal kits.
But ministers have now claimed to have ordered 17.5million kits, in principle. It is thought most of these will be home-tests, which will be available in batches – as and when they are ready.
The Department of Health and Social Care has identified a number of suppliers who can make the antibody tests, if they past medical checks.
Despite repeated requests from MailOnline, officials have refused to confirm which firms are in the running.
BioSure’s Ms Bard said it was ‘hugely optimistic’ for the Government to say it could get its tests out in three weeks, adding ‘six weeks is more likely’.
She warned that she cannot scale up any manufacturing until they are approved, in case the finger-prick kits fail stringent medical checks – which would be a great expense to the company.
BioSure already makes a home-testing kit for HIV, which looks for antibodies in the blood and gives a result in 15 minutes.
BioSure claims to have developed an at-home finger prick test that takes a quarter of an hour
It works exactly like the firm’s HIV self test, which requires the user to take a drop of blood using a safety lancet before using its pen device to scan the sample for COVID-19 antibodies
FURY AS UK IS STILL NOT CARRYING OUT 10,000 TESTS A DAY
Ministers are facing a furious backlash today after it emerged the UK is still not carrying out 10,000 tests a day – despite claims the level had been hit.
Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both hailed the target having been reached yesterday amid mounting criticism of the government response.
However, Public Health England has revealed that the latest daily number of tests of whether people were currently suffering from the disease was actually 9,114.
And health minister Helen Whately conceded today that while the ‘capacity’ was now in place to carry out 10,000 checks a day, the actual figure was still below that.
The confusion fuelled anger about delays in scaling up the testing regime, with questions over how Germany is managing to carry out more than 500,000 a week.
Its test, which is currently being evaluated, has just been recalibrated to look for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.
Other companies in discussion with the Government are likely to be in a similar position as Essex-based BioSure.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia agreed that the order of 17.5million kits by mid-April ‘does seem a stretch’.
He told MailOnline: ‘Certainly we need to get a substantial proportion of them distributed to people as soon as possible.’
Derby-based SureScreen is one company that has been approached by Number 10. It claims it can make 500,000 of its home-tests each week.
Ministers hope the antibody tests will identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune.
The tests would help get NHS staff back to work with screening of frontline workers, such as teachers and police officers, to follow.
The programme could see movement restrictions lifted earlier than the six months suggested by the Government’s scientific advisers yesterday.
‘The top priority is randomised testing to establish how far the disease has spread,’ a Whitehall source said.
The UK could start giving out coronavirus ‘immunity’ certificates like Germany to allow millions of Britons out of lockdown.
Otherwise, there is no official way of keeping track of who has already battled the virus and has developed some form of immunity.
A car drivers into the testing facility at the make-shift drive-through facility in Surrey
A worker wearing a face mask and apron stands waiting as a car approaches for a drive-through coronavirus in test
UK COULD GIVE OUT ‘IMMUNITY’ CERTIFICATES
The UK could start giving out coronavirus ‘immunity’ certificates like Germany to allow millions of Britons out of lockdown.
Health officials are looking into whether members of the public could be given some kind of document that says they have built up immunity to the disease, and are therefore allowed out of their homes, The Telegraph reports.
To get a certificate, a person would have to show they have already had COVID-19 using an antibody test, which is hoped to be rolled out soon.
The finger-prick blood test will detect if a person has antibodies against the disease, indicating they have already the illness and fought it, therefore are unlikely to be ‘reinfected’ if they go back into society.
The test won’t be available to the public for some time. Public Health England have said that a small number of tests are being checked for accuracy in a laboratory. Then, they are expected to be distributed via Amazon and sold in Boots so they can be available to everyone.
The move towards ‘immunity certificates’ follows Germany, who are making plans to introduce it soon.
Up to 100,000 citizens are set to be tested at a time, with documents issued to those who are no longer at risk of catching the virus.
Researchers will also use the data to advise the government on when schools should be re-opened and mass gatherings permitted once again.
For weeks Britain has relied on swabs to test patients in hospital, a lengthy process which can take up to two days.
Officials finally announced on Friday that they would begin antigen testing on NHS frontline staff.
It comes after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced he believes testing is key to the relaxation of social distancing measures.
Writing in the Daily Mail, he asked: ‘Is it too far-fetched to aim to be the first country that tests every single member of the population at home?
‘Mass social distancing will help flatten the curve, but only testing will save us from months, maybe years, of anguish and economic paralysis.’
Iceland has already carried out a population-wide testing programme and Norway announced one yesterday.
It comes after the president of the Royal College of Physicians today said up to 30 per cent of its staff is currently off work.
Professor Andrew Goddard told BBC Breakfast coronavirus testing being rolled out to frontline NHS workers would make a ‘big difference’.
He said: ‘I have got lots of colleagues at the moment who are sitting at home with family members who have got symptoms.
‘They themselves don’t have symptoms and are champing at the bit to try to get back to work.
‘So, if we can get the tests and get those people back on the shop floor, then that would be brilliant.’
Scientists fear that lifting restrictions too early – before the virus is in retreat –could lead to a second spike in deaths.
Britain is currently conducting only ‘antigen’ testing – a swab that requires laboratory analysis. A drive through test facility is pictured above in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures, London
HOW BIG IS BRITAIN’S CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK?
Britain has repeatedly been criticised for its controversial testing policy to only swab patients in hospital for the killer coronavirus.
It means the true size of the Britain’s outbreak is a mystery because officials have no idea who is actually infected, or how many cases there are.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a Government adviser, today claimed up to 2million people may already have caught the deadly coronavirus.
He was one of the authors of a bleak Imperial College London report that convinced Downing Street to ramp up its efforts to stop the crisis.
Professor Ferguson and colleagues warned that 250,000 Brits could die under a controversial plan to build-up ‘herd immunity’.
University of Oxford scientists last week claimed that up to half of the UK could have already caught the disease, called COVID-19.
Epidemiologists claimed the virus was circulating in the UK by mid-January, around two weeks before the first reported case.
Scientists called for immediate large-scale antibody testing to allow officials to understand the true size of the escalating outbreak.
But official figures show fewer than 20,000 patients have tested positive. The death toll currently stands at around 1,200.
Professor Hunter said: ‘If you relax social distancing based on a levelling off of cases you could see a resurgence. So we have to be cautious about that because we just don’t know enough about what is going on.
‘But if we know, through mass antibody testing, that a large proportion of the population is immune, you could lift social distancing much earlier.’
Ministers decided earlier this month to reserve all Britain’s testing capacity for those in hospitals.
But that move has left officials ‘blindfolded’ in their response to the crisis, the World Health Organisation has warned. It has called on all countries to ‘test, test, test’.
The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day.
Even front-line NHS staff were not being tested until this weekend, which meant 20 per cent were in self-isolation last week.
South Korea – initially one of the worst hit countries – managed to quickly control its outbreak by aggressively testing for the disease.
Germany yesterday announced plans for a testing programme that will see it issue 100,000 ‘immunity passports’ a month.
Professor Eleanor Riley, an infectious disease expert at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Mass antibody testing will give us a much better idea of how widely the virus has spread in the population.’
Medical equipment is pictured outside London’s Excel centre, which has been turned into NHS Nightingale Hospital. One in four Britons could be tested for coronavirus to try to shorten the lockdown
In a sign that ministers have finally accepted the urgency of mass testing, officials have agreed deals to buy 17.5million kits for use by mid-April. They hope to identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune. An NHS worker is pictured above being tested for the virus in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in London
The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day
STEVE NIMMO: I’m pretty sure I just survived two weeks of hell with the coronavirus – which should make me immune – but without a test to say for sure I’m stuck at home uselessly like the rest of you
The small but persistent cough I had after flying from Miami via Montreal back to London wasn’t anything serious: just a typical post-flight, low level bug. Wasn’t it?
This was at the time when the official health advice was if you have a cough AND a temperature, then you COULD have the Covid-19 virus.
But I now believe that what started as mild symptoms quickly developed into crippling coronavirus symptoms.
I’m not a good patient. You’ve probably met the type. He’s usually a man, could be your dad. He refuses to go to the doctor for anything and is ‘never ill’. That’s me. And at 53 I’m not in the age danger zone anyway.
A cough on its own didn’t make me sick, did it?
MailOnline’s Steve Nimmo believes he already suffered from Coronavirus but can’t be sure
Germany to issue coronavirus ‘immunity certificates’ to people who have recovered
‘Immunity certificates’ are set to be introduced in Germany as part of preparations for the country to cease its lockdown.
Researchers want to bring in the documents for citizens not at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.
It comes as Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has secured a boost in poll ratings.
As part of Germany’s fight against the virus, scientists are using antibodies in test participants to find out which of them have had the illness and healed, Der Spiegel reports.
The team plans to test 100,000 people at a time, issuing documentation to those who have built up an immunity.
They will then use the information gleaned from the testing to assess how and when the lockdown should conclude.
Researchers will utilise the data as they advise the government on when schools will be re-opened and mass gatherings permitted once again.
No one wants to be sick but you really don’t want to be a ‘super spreader’ either – like that guy who earned that embarrassing title after skiing in the Alps then infecting a ton of people at the beginning if this pandemic.
So I bought a digital thermometer to monitor my temperature and I decided to be polite and cough AWAY from loved ones and colleagues.
Then came the Saturday night fever. It wasn’t a joke. It started in the evening and by 8pm I was feeling, well, flu-ey.
Monday morning I called my doctor’s office. My chest was congested and my temperature had topped out at 37.2 (98.6). Not in the 38 (100.4) degrees danger zone according to the NHS – but worth a mention.
The doctor prescribed me penicillin and a new inhaler (I’d had one years before for asthma) after questions over the phone: ‘What colour is the stuff your coughing up? Really? Ok you should isolate for 14 days.’
And so it began.
My only experience of regular flu was one episode in my early 20s and it floored me. This was tame by comparison. I was still down-playing the symptoms in my head. ‘No way could this be THE virus, could it?’ – but nevertheless, I dutifully isolated.
At this point my thought process was that I just needed to get through this 14-day period then I can get out and take advantage of the quiet streets. I’ll get a table at that Michelin-starred restaurant that’s impossible to get into (I’ve had my eye on Core by Clare Smyth). This was before all restaurants closed.
But then I lost my sense of smell and taste. I mean I could not smell a thing for two days. Period. So that scuppered my plans for high-end dining. Yes, I really was thinking like this at that point.
Steve Nimmo on holiday in Florida before returning to the UK and becoming unwell
The doc told me to call back if things got worse. I called her on Wednesday. The receptionist said I should call NHS111 and ask for a swab test. But they said they’d stopped doing that. OK, so I’ll keep taking the penicillin and painkillers then.
A daily pattern emerged: Morning, not bad, thinking I’ve beaten this damn bug. Afternoon, my airways became constricted. Evening brought the terror: Shivering with cold – real body shuddering so that I had to take extra care walking down my stairs so as not to fall over. In addition, coughing fits that would not stop and panting for air.
So now my ‘Am I REALLY sick?’ checklist was: A 99.8 degree temperature high; fever chills and sweats; pains in hands, shinbones, teeth, feet; terrible coughing; lost sense of smell; restricted breathing and a new one: numbness.
On Thursday evening all my fingers lost feeling and developed icy pins and needles. Now I was firmly in the ‘I am so sick please help me!’ camp.
Steve Nimmo pictured in Florida on holiday immediately before returning to UK
Without an anti-body test there is currently no way of knowing if Steve has really had the virus
I took a hot shower – it’s the only thing I could think of to get feeling back in my fingers. I worried they were going to die on my hands, go purple and have to be amputated.
Twenty minutes of making fists with both hands as I shuddered under a hot shower and I started to get feeling back. But now my toes were tingling and going numb. I swore out loud. Not for the first time.
I got to bed, took paracetamol with codeine and started to get hot. This was good. I’d burn up and sweat it out while lying very still so as not to exert energy because I could’t get enough air into my lungs to breathe.
By morning I needed a change of t-shirt (it was three a night now) and I was enjoying daily, clean bedsheets. But I was in danger of running out of laundry pods.
Morning came and with it, respite. A lower temperature, less coughing and reasonable breathing. But this was only a temporary retreat from the virus before the Friday night assault that was a real horror show.
At precisely 4:30pm while Skyping my brother in Barcelona, I observed that my breathing is beginning to get difficult.
Between 6:30 and 9:30 I was shivering in bed before getting hot again. I couldn’t sleep. Now I was getting delirious because I was starting to consider that if my breathing gets any worse, I’ll may die here.
My mind raced. I could get in my car , drive to St Mary’s A&E in Paddington – my nearest hospital in north London – and collapse at their door. Or maybe it would be better to call an ambulance. I imagined putting a general call for help out on Facebook with my address. But I hate attention seekers on social media so I resolved to either drive to the hospital or die in bed with dignity. Then my thoughts really got weird.
Somehow I fell asleep and survived the night. I was genuinely surprised when I woke up alive, soaking wet and breathing reasonably.
When I rehydrated, I called NHS111 and this time I was speaking to a medically untrained moron. That’s probably not fair but that was what I was thinking when he was making whooping noises at the prospect of 98.2 temperatures and telling me that anything over 90 is dangerous. Even 80+ is not normal he said and ‘it’s dangerous to google these things’ he further advised.
He said that I definitely qualified for a nurse visit and it definitely would not take long. Definitely within 24-hours. He took down all my details. No nurse arrived. That was eight days ago.
My situation now is that after that terrible Friday night I stopped going into fever and have gradually improved. Now it’s just a cough and moderate asthma I’m dealing with. I’m working from home.
But did I have THE virus? With no testing how can I know. Do I have antibodies? Again, no test is available so I can’t be sure.
Months from now there will be an army of recovered people . I am possibly one of them. They can’t pass on the infection and can’t get it again quickly, we are told. That could be a great resource for the nation. We can safely go back to work. But we need testing to know who they are.
It’s clear from the UK Government’s evasiveness on the topic that virus tests were ordered far too late. Next week frontline NHS staff are supposed to be getting tested. Let’s hope that does happen.
And then, probably weeks after that, I hope to find out if I was really sick with Covid-19 – or was it just a non-specific airplane bug gone wild?
Ocado buys 100,000 testing kits for staff costing £1.4million as supermarkets ramp up safety measures but vows to hand them to NHS workers if they are left without
By Lara Keay
Ocado has bought 100,000 coronavirus testing kits for its staff at a cost of £1.4million, but have promised to hand them to the NHS if they need them.
The food delivery company wants all of its workers to be tested regularly to ensure they are safe to drop off supplies to elderly or vulnerable customers who are ‘sheilding’.
Ocado claims 40,000 tests have already been delivered to stores across the UK, with 60,000 more to go, reports The Guardian.
But the firm refused to reveal where they have bought the tests, with questions raised over why supermarket staff have been able to get access to them before thousands of NHS frontline workers.
The Government has been slammed for its slow roll out of testing for staff, who are being forced to stay away from work if they or people in their household have symptoms, creating a devastating knock-on effect for patient care.
Public Health England has bought 3.5million testing kits, but these are currently only available for critical care staff and are taking time to reach other key hospital workers.
Private health firms have also come under fire for selling businesses test kits for as much as £295 each.
Meanwhile supermarkets Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have not yet announced any plans to swab their staff to see if they have the virus.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has said roll-out of testing will begin for frontline healthcare workers this week after some staff were sampled on Saturday and Sunday.
The latest letter states that key NHS staff and anyone they live with who is ill are first in line for testing.
It says hospitals should ‘start this week with those working in critical care, emergency departments and ambulance services, and any other high priority groups you determine locally.
‘We will then sequentially expand to other NHS staff groups as more tests are made available to the NHS, and ultimately into other essential public services including social care.
‘In the first instance, we ask that you identify those staff in these initial priority groups (including critical care, emergency departments and ambulance services) who are unable to work because of the requirement for 14-day self-isolation.
‘These are staff living in a household where another individual may have Covid-19.
‘Trust chief executives tell us that, while this is the right action for staff members to have taken, it is this group that is causing the greatest degree of absenteeism, potentially for no underlying clinical reason on the part of the staff member herself/himself.
‘NHS organisations will use these tests to allow key staff to return to work if the index case in their home is Covid-19 free.’
Trusts are told to identify staff or household members who need to be tested, ‘with a particular focus on testing the suspected coronavirus sufferer in a quarantined household which is shared with a key NHS staff member’.
Trusts should initially allocate up to 15 per cent of daily testing capacity for this purpose, and tests should be carried out as soon after symptoms develop as possible ‘to maximise the accuracy of the result’.
A share of the 15 per cent should also be made available for ambulance trusts and any other high priority groups determined locally, the letter says.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.
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