Leading US health experts predicted a coronavirus could kill tens of millions of people in a chilling warning three months before the deadly outbreak in China.
Scientists at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security modeled a hypothetical pandemic on a computer as part of research last October.
The simulation predicted 65 million people from every corner of the world would be wiped out in just 18 months.
So far the highly contagious disease currently ravaging China has killed 41 people and infected more than 1,300 – but experts predict the true number near 10,000.
Dr Eric Toner, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins, said he wasn’t shocked when news of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in late December.
‘I have thought for a long time that the most likely virus that might cause a new pandemic would be a coronavirus.
‘We don’t yet know how contagious it is. We know that it is being spread person to person, but we don’t know to what extent.
‘An initial first impression is that this is significantly milder than SARS. So that’s reassuring. On the other hand, it may be mor transmissible than SARS, at least in the community setting.‘
The outbreak in Wuhan isn’t considered a pandemic yet, but the virus has been confirmed in 12 different nations: USA, Australia, France, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau and Nepal.
The pandemic simulation
Dr Toner’s computer simulation suggested that after six months, nearly every country in the world would have cases of coronavirus. Within 18 months, 65million people could die.
Dr Toner’s simulation imagined a fictional virus called CAPS – a pandemic that originated in Brazil’s pig farms in the hypothetical scenario.
The virus in Toner’s simulation would be resistant to any modern vaccine. It would be deadlier than SARS, but about as easy to catch as the flu.
His computer modelled outbreak started small, with farmers coming down with fevers or pneumonia-like symptoms.
It then spread to crowded and poverty-riddled communities in South America.
Flights were grounded and travel bookings were slashed in half. After six months, the virus had spread around the globe and a year later it had killed 65 million people.
What are Coronaviruses and what we know about the new pandemic from Wuhan?
Coronaviruses are infections of the respiratory tract that can lead to illnesses like pneumonia or the common cold.
One was also responsible for the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in China, which affected 8,000 people and killed 774 in the early 2000s.
What is this new virus?
The virus has been identified as a new type of coronavirus.
Can this new virus kill?
Yes. Fourty-one people have so far died after testing positive for the virus. More than 1300 people have been infected by the new virus within the last 3 weeks.
What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus?
Its symptoms are typically a fever, cough and trouble breathing, but some patients have developed pneumonia, a potentially life-threatening infection that causes inflammation of the small air sacs in the lungs.
People carrying the novel coronavirus may only have mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.
They may assume they have a common cold and not seek medical attention, experts fear.
How is the new Chinese virus detected?
The virus’s genetic sequencing was released by scientists in China to the rest of the world to enable other countries to quickly diagnose potential new cases. This helps other countries respond quickly to disease outbreaks.
To contain the virus, airports are detecting infected people with temperature checks. But as with every virus, it has an incubation period, meaning detection is not always possible because symptoms have not appeared yet.
How did this new epidemic start and spread?
The first cases identified were among people connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan. A first study says the main animal carrier are snakes.
Cases have since been identified elsewhere which could have been spread through human-to-human transmission.
What are countries doing to prevent the spread?
Countries in Asia have stepped up airport surveillance. They include Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines.
Australia and the US are also screening patients for a high temperature, and the UK announced it will screen passengers returning from Wuhan.
Is this new outbreak similar to anything seen before?
Experts have compared it to the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
The epidemic started in southern China and killed more than 700 people in mainland China, Hong Kong and elsewhere.