Masks and airport checks for Chinese SARS-like virus are there to keep population calm – no government can stop its spread now

Peter Andrews is an Irish science journalist and writer, based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in GeneticsAs the Chinese coronavirus spreads rapidly around the globe, governments worldwide are making a show of doing something. But are their measures effective, or just exercises in population control?

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization deliberated on whether to declare the disease an international public health emergency, postponing the decision for a lack of clear data. 

Whatever decision is taken in the coming days will greatly affect the response of both the Chinese government and others in dealing with the outbreak of the 2019-nCoV virus that has already infected hundreds and killed nine.

But the course of the epidemic will not be decided by officials in conference rooms.

Person-to-person transmission

Prior to Monday, the only known cases of the virus were all from people who had been in Wuhan — suggesting they all caught it at the illegal wildlife market thought to be ground zero for the plague. As the virus has an animal origin, it was hoped at first that it could only jump from the animal source to humans.

But now we know the virus can be transmitted from person to person, things look much bleaker. In the last few days the virus has spread to Taiwan, and there has been one confirmed case in Seattle, USA. Screening efforts are to be stepped up by Australia, Russia and the UK for passengers arriving from Wuhan. One man in Australia has been quarantined.

Mr Li has had to admit the virus is contagious by respiratory tract—in other words, coughs and sneezes. This is the easiest way for a virus to spread, and there is practically nothing that can be done to slow or stop it. Hand sanitizers and facemasks will never be ubiquitous, and in any case, do they even work? A 2012 study showed that, while washing your hands is effective against the flu virus, merely wearing a face mask did not make a statistically significant difference to rates of infection.

As if to prove this, at least 15 medical workers in Wuhan are now infected. These people would have been taking every precaution, swaddled in quarantine gear and face masks, implying that the virus is easily making the jump from person to person.

Is there anything that does work?

Hopefully we will never know what it takes to stop a highly contagious and deadly disease from spreading throughout the world. It could look like the Hollywood science fiction movies about such things—soldiers patrolling the streets with cities on lockdown, medical services stretched beyond breaking point, and sick people unable to access the few available doctors. Unless such a plague emerges, it is probably not even worth restricting travel or screening passengers at airports.

Such measures have more to do with hope than with reality, and perhaps with people’s perceptions. Modern people want to feel as if they have control over every situation, or that there are some measures the government can take to protect them. But in truth, beyond personal precautions like washing your hands and cooking meat thoroughly, if you become infected you have only your immune system to save you. So the schools will continue to be shut, the soldiers rolled out and the gas masks distributed. But this particular enemy cannot be shot at, locked up or bargained with. Meanwhile, shares in Chinese face mask manufacturers have risen by 10%.