Within the past 24 hours, the World Health Organisation declared a global coronavirus emergency as the death toll in China jumped up to 213.

Since the outbreak of the novel strain of coronavirus, the world has been on edge. The hasty nature with which it spread and the novelty of the disease, meaning researchers still don’t know how it mutates or how severe it can get, form the foundation of this fear.

With the World Health Organisation classifying the disease as a health emergency, it is worth wondering whether the coronavirus has the capability to escalate into a pandemic.

Spread of the coronavirus

Although the vast number of deaths have been in China, particularly in the now quarantined Wuhan region where the outbreak initially began, the virus has since spread to a dozen other countries including the United States, Canada and India. Since there’s no known cure for the novel coronavirus and no clear prevention method, people have been investing in face masks and countries have been imposing travel bans to restrict the spread of the disease.

In order to calculate whether this disease has the potential to become a pandemic, which is a globally prevalent disease, two factors need to be analysed.

How easily can the virus spread?

There is a scientific method that epidemiologists use to determine the spread of a disease. The term for this used among the medical community is basic reproductive number. This can also be referred to the R naught or the RO.

What this figure essentially tries to determine is, from one sick person how many people can the virus spread to and affect provided they are susceptible to the disease (meaning they haven’t taken any vaccine or medicine for the prevention of that disease).

Naturally, this figure is extremely important in gathering data about the disease and figuring out the severity of it. The higher the number, the higher the chances of it becoming and epidemic or pandemic.

Issues with trying to determine this

One of the biggest caveats with attempting to determine this that the basic reproduction number is not fixed. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, diseases behave differently depending on the environment they’re in and depending on other factors such as population density and susceptibility to a disease in a population. For these reasons, the RO has the tendency to fluctuate.

Another factor that affects the RO is the fact that some people are more contagious than others so their RO ends up being higher. These particularly contagious individuals are known as ‘super-spreaders’.

What do we already know about the spread of the coronavirus

What we already know about the spread of the coronavirus is the RO that the World Health Organisation was able to estimate. According to their estimates, the virus can has been transmitted to an average of 1.4 to 25 other people. This makes it less contagious than SARS, but more contagious than the common cold.

However, it is worth noting that these are just the estimates from the WHO. Various other organisations, researchers and research group are compiling their own data using different assumptions and statistical models, which makes trying to pinpoint the spread of the disease even more difficult.

How deadly is the virus?

In addition to trying to determine the basic reproductive number of the virus, it is equally important to figure out how fatal this disease can get. Researchers call this the case fatality rate or the CFR.

The simplest way to understand the CFR is that it refers to the number of deaths caused by a disease within a group of people suffering from said disease. However, even in this case there are issues with attempting to pinpoint a single figure. This is because in order to have a solid understanding of the CFR you need to have exact figures for how many people in the population have the virus and among those, how many people have died from it. The problem is that early on in outbreaks, it is tough to determine this information.

That’s because the sickest are usually the ones who show up at doctor’s offices and in hospitals. But there may be hundreds or thousands of others with the virus who never show symptoms, or never bother going to see a doctor because they’re not very sick. (That’s why the CFR can often look much worse in the early days of an outbreak.)

So while there’s a great hunger for clarity about how bad the outbreak will become, frustratingly at this stage, researchers need time to work that out.

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