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Coronavirus infections will inevitably rise in UK but people should not stigmatise communities, Kingston University microbiology expert says

Posted Wednesday 12 February 2020

Coronavirus infections will inevitably rise in UK but people should not stigmatise communities, Kingston University microbiology expert says

As the global outbreak of coronavirus continues to dominate headlines, a leading microbiologist from Kingston University says it is inevitable the United Kingdom will see more cases, but has called on people not to stigmatise particular communities.  

Professor Mark Fielder, an expert in the rapid detection and diagnosis of infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance, has been studying the likelihood of a new virus emerging through animal to human transmission with his research team. He has been tracking the development of the new coronavirus since it first came to light late last year.

"This is a virus that spreads quite rapidly but it is one we knew nothing about just over a month ago. We're learning about how it moves and evolves on an almost daily basis," Professor Fielder said.

"People should be reassured that Britain, along with many other countries, has very good infection control procedures and healthcare processes to make sure we deal with patients safely, carefully and in the best way we can to offer the highest quality treatment and support and the virus is effectively contained."

The country's strict procedures limit to almost zero the chance of the infection being transmitted on from an infected person once they have been diagnosed, as evidenced by the cases we have seen in the UK so far, he explained.

Professor Fielder, who will be giving a public lecture on the new coronavirus at Kingston University on Thursday 13 February, emphasised the infection does not differentiate between communities or ethnicities and warned against the dangers of stigmatising specific groups.

"We need to make sure we understand this virus and also understand that it doesn't recognise particular communities, individuals or ethnicities - it will infect people where it gets the opportunity. It is a local and global problem that we need to work together to combat," he said.

This strain of coronavirus is a newly emerged infection that first came to light in China in late December 2019. It was formally identified by the Chinese Government on January 7 2020. Since then, it has been shown to be an infection that can pass from human to human and at the latest count China had seen more than 42,000 cases. It causes flu-like symptoms in most people, including a cough and high temperature and sometimes shortness of breath.

Yet for a healthy person, although they will need medical attention, the impact seems relatively minor and their chances of survival are high, Professor Fielder explained.

"For the majority of people this is a mild infection. It manifests as a runny nose, fever, maybe a sore throat and a cough. It can descend into tightness of the chest and difficulty in breathing - and possibly then on to pneumonia. However most people who are in generally good health will fully recover - especially if they have medical support," the microbiologist from Kingston University's Faculty of Science, Engineering and Computing said.

Many of the patients who had succumbed to the virus had underlying health problems - such as heart disease, diabetes, or asthma, Professor Fielder added.

The infectious diseases expert said the chances of the virus spreading widely through countries such as the UK and the rest of Europe were very low due to the infection control procedures put in place.

"The British public have been given a lot of very clear information about what the symptoms of infection are and strong and simple advice about what to do if they think they might be infected. We have all the procedures in place to make sure patients are supported, identified, isolated where necessary and treated appropriately and I'm confident that will remain the case," Professor Fielder said.

This new virus, which has been named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as nCoV-2019, is one of a number of coronaviruses, including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which came from bats, and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) which came from contact with camels. It is spread by close contact, which is defined by WHO as being in a range of less than two metres for more than 15 minutes. It is thought to be spread by droplet, not aerosol transmission. Aerosol is very fine liquid particles, similar to a vaporiser or a spray for example, whereas droplets are much bigger and travel less distance. By way of comparison, the flu virus is spread by aerosol, so is much more contagious.

"This virus isn't as transmissible as influenza, therefore your chances of catching it from passing contact are low," Professor Fielder said. "Advice to minimise contagion is to maintain hand and respiratory hygiene. That means when coughing or sneezing, do so into a tissue wherever possible. This is a porous material so the virus, which is covered in a fatty coating, will stick to it. Putting the tissue straight in the bin and washing your hands or using hand sanitiser immediately is the best way to minimise risk."

Professor Fielder had a clear message for people who are concerned. "The virus is under control and what we need to do now is to look at how we can develop vaccines and treatments to ensure we can treat people more efficiently.

"Alongside this we need to reassure the public. While the national level of concern has been raised to moderate, this is to ensure is the UK Government has the capability to act and react swiftly and put resources in places to make sure we don't have an outbreak. The likelihood of infection remains low."

  • Professor Fielder will be giving a public lecture on the new Coronavirus, examining how it is being managed and the challenges faced between 1 and 2pm this Thursday, 13 February. The lecture will take place in the Clattern Lecture Theatre at the University's Penrhyn Road campus.

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