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What happens if we don’t stop coronavirus?

Feb 5, 2020 • 14m 41s

As coronavirus shuts borders and creates global panic, Rick Morton explains where the virus originated and looks at attempts to combat it.

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What happens if we don’t stop coronavirus?

156 • Feb 5, 2020

What happens if we don’t stop coronavirus?

[Music starts]

RICK:

And it's really just one gene. And that's the start of the novel coronavirus.

Archival tape —

[Audio of bats]

RICK:

There are these horseshoe bats that live in caves in China's Yunnan Province. Sometimes they’re called chrysanthemum bats and, you know, they're kind of buzzing around these caves and just doing their own things. And these animals almost never come into contact with human beings because they live at night. And we have known for years that they've got these bat corona viruses, this virus that lives very harmlessly in these animals. But then the virus had its first fluke, which is to jump into another animal, possibly a civet, which is kind of a cat-like, wild animal in China. And it sits there for a bit longer. Again, totally harmless. And then the virus wins the lottery. It has one mutation at precisely the right time that gives it access to the human genome. It’s one protein that it needs to crack and it gets it right.And that's the start of coronavirus 2019.

RUBY:

From Schwartz media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. From a bat cave in You-naan Province to a mobile hospital on Christmas Island, Coronavirus could be the next pandemic. Today we’re talking to Rick Morton, a senior reporter for The Saturday Paper about where it began, and what’s being done here in Australia to combat it.

[Music/noise ends]

RICK:

So the virus is very new, but it did kind of stalk undetected through the population of Wuhan in China's Hubei province for weeks before we knew exactly what it was. Look, at what has been a lot of talk about the Hunan seafood market, which is a wet kind of slaughter market for animal trade, wild animal trade in Wuhan.

Archival tape — Female newsreader 1

A leading theory is that a worker inside this market contracted the virus from an animal.

Archival tape — Male newsreader

You’ve got urine and faeces spraying from one enclosure to another creating, really, an incubator for emerging viruses.

RICK:

And it's an extremely popular and busy place. And yes, many of the cases that had the new novel coronavirus had contact or worked in that seafood market.

But, the very first case, they had no epidemiological link. They had not been to the seafood market. They didn't know anyone who had been to the seafood market. They went to another market entirely. So it seems likely, although we can't be sure, that while the Hunan seafood market acted as an amplifier for this infection and this outbreak, it was not ground zero for the outbreak. And that must have come from somewhere else. And we don't know where that was.

RUBY:

Ok, so when those first cases were discovered, what did doctors in China do?

RICK:

So once China realised that they had an outbreak of some unknown viral pneumonia, it became quite urgent on their behalf to kind of crack the genome of this thing. And corona viruses actually have the biggest genome of any known virus. That's 29,000 nucleotide pairs, which are kind of the that's the instruction book for how to build this thing.

The reason they had to crack the code was because once they had and sequenced it and knew it was new and then they could tell the World Health Organisation and then they could provide that data, which they did very quickly: within a week. One expert, from , I think it was George Washington University, said it was insane. It is totally unprecedented. When the SARS outbreak happened, which again is another type of coronavirus, very similar in genetic makeup, when that happened in 2002/2003 it took 5 months to crack the code.

RUBY:

So scientists cracked the genome, but at this stage there was no evidence that the virus was spreading between humans. So when was the first case of human to human transmission?

RICK:

So the first case of human to human transmission was actually detected in Guangdong province because somebody there was infected by their family members returning from Wuhan. And those family members had visited someone else in Wuhan hospital. So the person who'd never left Guangdong got the disease.

[Music starts]

RICK:

That's a turning point for what we know about the coronavirus, because up until that point, there was a hope, maybe a slim hope, that it could actually be contained in China because there was no clear proof that it could happen outside of the bounds of animal to human contact.

That's the kind of ‘oh no’ moment when it comes to viruses because that, that allows exponential growth in the virus.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

[Music ends]

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RUBY:

Rick, we’re talking about the spread of Coronavirus, when did it go global? Where did it turn up first?

RICK:

So it was in Thailand first. Within another week or less than a week of them announcing the genome.

[Music starts]

RICK:

And then it was in Japan. Those two new cases in Japan over two days.

Archival tape — Female newsreader 2:

‘Well it is indeed the headline story for Japanese media. The first case of the new coronavirus here in Japan.’

RICK:

And this is still in mid-January. And then the Republic of South Korea.

Archival tape — Female newsreader 3:

‘So with the coronavirus spreading across China, there’s been the first case confirmed in Korea.

Archival tape — Male newsreader 2:

‘We now have eleven confirmed cases of the coronavirus here in South Korea. Four new cases were confirmed this afternoon.’

RICK:

And then it went everywhere.

Archival tape — Male newsreader 3:

‘Chinese health officials reported 45 new deaths, bringing the number of those killed in China to 304. Crucially, though, more than 14,000 people are confirmed to have the illness.’

RICK:

The latest data shows that it's turned up in over 29 countries.We now know and world health authorities started to realize, that this thing would be self-sustaining. That also gives the virus its R0 value. And it's a very complicated term. But essentially it tells you how fast it spreads. The value for the novel coronavirus 2019 is between 2 and 3. At the moment, it's about 2.2. And that means that it can you know, one person can infect two people. And those two people infect two more people each.

So, you know, for context, the SARS, there were about 10000 people infected over a matter of month and about 800 deaths. Now, with the new coronavirus, we're already at 14,500 confirmed cases.

And by the time we finish speaking, it'll probably be revised up again because that number is only increasing.

RUBY:

So we know it is highly contagious, but how deadly is it?

RICK:

Virus is less dangerous than the common flu. The common flu in America kills more people every day, so far. So in terms of, you know, absolute fatalities, it's not that dangerous.

The real threat of the coronavirus is the unknown and the uncertainty. And that's a threat for two reasons. One, because we don't know how this thing will mutate. And given it's spreading much faster than the SARS virus, much, much faster. Eery time it makes a jump into a new human host, that's another chance for a mutation. And the more chances for mutation, the more chances it's going to strike on something that allows it to be even more deadly, to be even more infectious, which is the main, it's the raison d'être of every virus everywhere. Evolutionary speaking, it is designed to be the best at infecting something so that it continues to live.

RUBY:

Can you talk me through Australia's reaction?

RICK:

So Australia, at first, you know, we've now got over 12 confirmed cases and, you know, halfway through this epidemic, things were heading along as normal. And then we decide that we're going to evacuate the 600 odd people from Wuhan and Hubei Province, some of them Australian citizens, some of them not who were living or spending time there.

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Female newsreader 4:

‘First Australians evacuated the coronavirus epicentre have touched down on Christmas Island to spend 14 days in isolation.’

RICK:

And Scott Morrison announced that these people were going to be quarantined, not just in a hospital isolation ward, but on Christmas Island. Famous for, or infamous I should say, for holding asylum seekers in detention.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

‘We’ve taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australian in Wuhan and the Hubei province. This will be done…’

RICK:

And at first, the Australian government said that they were going to make these people pay a thousand dollars for the honour of being repatriated to an island prison.

And now we've gone one step further. And so we've banned anyone coming to Australia who've been in mainland China for the last 14 days.

You know, you cannot get into the country now. There will be no visa if you're an Australian citizen. Sure. Come on in. Not that I'm you know, I've never been told that viruses can read passports, but there you go.

And this is a strong probably overcorrected response to, yes, a global health emergency, but one that needs to respond to science and facts. And this is not it.

RUBY:

Do you think there is a racial dimension to the way Australia is responding to coronavirus?

RICK:

I do think there is a racial dimension. And I think that sometimes that can be confronting for people to hear. And in many cases, it's quite unconscious. But, you know, we've got headlines calling this a China virus.

Archival tape — Male newsreader 4:

‘A regional newspaper has had to apologise for this headline that used the phrase ‘yellow alert.

Archival tape — Unidentified male:

‘It is a virus, we called it coronavirus, is not China virus [sic]. What we’re going to do is isolate the virus, not Chinese.’

RICK:

And yes, the virus originated in China, but that's not how people's brains interpret information. And when you've got the results of this, this kind of saturation media coverage now being people walking away from Asian people when they cough. We've had people questioning doctors of Chinese descent or even just Asian descent about whether they should be treating people given the Corona virus outbreak.

And then we've got Australian citizens allowed back into the country from mainland China, but not Chinese tourists or Chinese people who aren't citizens. What's the difference when it comes to virology or epidemiology? What is the difference between those two categories of people?

RUBY:

Rick, what are we going to do about Coronavirus?

RICK:

So I spoke with Professor Paul Young, head of the School of Chemistry and Molecular Bio -Sciences at University of Queensland.

And they were asked within weeks of this new virus coming out of China to design a vaccine to build, test and implement a whole vaccine from scratch within 16 weeks.

Archival tape — Paul Young:

The team is about 20 strong and we're bringing other groups in western Queensland on board And up till now, there's it's like not working and weekends as well. So it is a constant run in the lab at the moment.

RICK:

Now, that is not to put too fine a point on, an amazingly difficult challenge. But they can do that because we've got the virus genome and that came out so quickly from China. But also they've got this platform, they call it molecular clamp. Basically it gives them a real solid chance of building a fake virus, a synthetic virus.

If you can put a fake virus into the human body with this molecular clamp technology, it allows it to do so much more stably. And it doesn't totally disable the body's natural immune response. That's what we need to train.

[Music starts]

So that's kind of ground zero of the fight at the moment.

If you can't stop it, it doesn't mean that it's going to run through the earth and turn everyone into zombies. It just means that you're going to have a virus. A new virus like the cold and the flu and measles that hangs around forever.

So if you don't contain it at some point, if you don't get that R value below one, then you just have to learn to live with this new virus. And we have to change. And that's not a good outcome. So we want to try and fight this thing now and beat it before we get to that point.

And the ongoing fear, no fear is a cost. It's a cost to the psychology of being a human being. But it's also a cost to economies when people act as a group. And that's what certainly the markets have been reflecting. We still don't have an end to it. We're still in the middle of it. And it's probably not going to peak at least for another week before we know what the future looks like.

RUBY:

Rick, thanks so much for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks Ruby, appreciate it.

[Music starts]

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Elsewhere in the new, Barnaby Joyce has failed in his attempt to take back the leadership of the National party. Nationals leader Michael McCormack held onto his position in an extremely close 11-10 party room vote, sparked by the resignation of deputy leader Bridget McKenzie. David Littleproud was elected the new deputy.

The Greens also held a leadership ballot, Adam Bandt was elected unopposed as leader, with Larissa Waters and Nick McKim elected as co-deputy leaders.

And the Democratic presidential primary finally kicked off yesterday with voters in Iowa choosing between a crowded and tight field. Results were significantly delayed due to what party officials called “quality control” issues, but early figures showed Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg polling well, while frontrunner Joe Biden performed worse than expected.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See you tomorrow

As coronavirus shuts borders and creates global panic, there is a risk it will reach a point where it cannot be contained. Rick Morton explains where the virus originated and looks at the scientific breakthroughs behind the attempt to combat it.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

Anatomy of an epidemic in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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156: What happens if we don’t stop coronavirus?