Coronavirus facts – crackpot conspiracists claim it exists to push vaccines

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Recently, the world press is breathlessly reporting an outbreak of a respiratory illness caused by a new coronavirus (termed “2019-nCoV”). It was first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. 

Predictably, the second that the story about this coronavirus hit the clickbait headlines across the world, the anti-vaccine conspiracists started pushing all kinds of ignorant nonsense.

You know those conspiracies like the military (unknown which one) created the virus to kill people. Or China is trying to destroy ‘Murica. Or Bill Gates invented the virus (well, if he did, it’s because of Windows 7). Or Big Pharma created the virus because they have a secret vaccine that they can sell for billions of gold bars.

Of course, there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that any of those conspiracies are true. However, if the coronavirus does become a worldwide epidemic (and it hasn’t so far), then the CDC, WHO, and Big Pharma will work feverishly to find a vaccine to prevent it. 

This article isn’t going to spend time refuting such nonsense, but we will focus on the science and the facts since this is a serious concern to people.

Coronavirus image. I don’t see a crown.

About coronavirus

So, I guess what’s on everyone’s mind is “what is the coronavirus?” In fact, I was thinking that as I was writing this article, so let’s start with that. So, this will be a little science, but I trust that my loyal readers will not be overwhelmed.

Coronaviruses (there are seven that infect humans) are species of virus belonging to the subfamily Coronavirinae in the family Coronaviridae, in the order Nidovirales. They are an RNA virus of 26-32 thousand base pairs.

The coronavirus name is derived from the Latin word which means crown or halo. Apparently, the infectious form of the virus appears under an electron microscope to have a fringe of large, bulbous surface projections that appear to be reminiscent of a crown. I don’t see it, but maybe I’m not very imaginative.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is caused by SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV), which means that the current coronavirus outbreak is related to SARS. In addition, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is caused by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV). 

Coronaviruses, like the 2019-nCoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV species, infect the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of mammals and birds. Interestingly, coronaviruses may cause a substantial percentage of all common colds in humans.

That sounds like a minor issue, except that coronaviruses can cause pneumonia, either viral or secondary bacterial, which can be deadly.

The SARS coronavirus has a unique pathophysiology because it causes more severe upper and lower respiratory tract infections. Finally, these coronaviruses are easily transmitted by airborne droplets formed by sneezing and coughing.

Finally, even though there is a hypothesis that the new coronavirus arose in animals and moved to humans, the evidence hasn’t clearly established this origin. However, the current cases in China seem to be from human-to-human contact.

Is this new coronavirus dangerous?

The CDC and WHO have not determined how contagious the current 2019-nCoV coronavirus might be. If it is not very contagious, then any outbreaks could be self-limiting. 

And the CDC has issued a Level 2 alert for travelers who may be going to Wuhan city – they are recommending “Practice Enhanced Precautions.” This means: 

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Older travelers and those with underlying health issues may be at risk for more severe disease and should discuss travel to Wuhan with their healthcare provider.

In addition, the CDC has begun screening airline passengers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan city to San Francisco (SFO, Los Angeles (LAX), and New York City (JFK). The CDC will expand that to Atlanta (ATL) and Chicago (ORD) airports soon. The CDC has developed a fast test for the virus, which will help them screen patients that exhibit signs or symptoms of coronavirus infections.

As I was writing this article (wow, news moves fast), Wuhan banned outbound travel to restrict the spread of the disease before it becomes serious.

Some of these precautions would be the same if there was an area with an outbreak of a pathogen like measles, ebolavirus, or other diseases.

But right now, we don’t have a lot of information as to dangers from this novel coronavirus. As of the date that I’m writing this article, the World Health Organization has reported that there have been 282 confirmed cases (in China, Japan, North Korea, and Thailand) with 6 deaths.

The closely related SARS coronavirus kills about 7.2% of those who contract the disease.

With respect to this novel coronavirus, the CDC says, in this carefully-worded statement, that:

While CDC considers this is a serious public health concern, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.

Nevertheless, CDC is taking proactive preparedness precautions.

In other words, we’re not observing some apocalypse leading to a dystopian future. Although if you read the outstanding book, World War Z (please, not the movie), it starts as an infection in China just 1300 km from Wuhan. 

Will there be a coronavirus vaccine?

Even though the SARS outbreak was in 2003, we still don’t have a licensed vaccine for it. There are several issues to producing a vaccine including a high level of adverse events that were directly linked to the vaccine (so, researchers actually do care about causality between vaccines and adverse events), low immunogenicity (again, effectiveness matters), and other issues.

However,  China is beginning clinical trials with a new SARS vaccine.

Thus, we can assume that producing a vaccine for the new 2019-nCoV coronavirus will also be difficult. That pretty much demolishes the conspiracy theory that Big Pharma created the virus to sell vaccines!

Summary

Although clickbait headlines and conspiracists are all over this coronavirus outbreak, let’s be careful out there.

First, we don’t know how pathogenic this new disease might be. It appears to be most dangerous to those who have other underlying chronic health conditions. 

Second, we don’t know how contagious the disease might be. Wuhan has a population of around 11 million, yet just a few hundred have been infected with the novel virus. It’s possible that the Chinese government did something miraculous to prevent its spread, but usually, a highly contagious virus would spread in a large population quickly before anyone notices. 

Third, the CDC and WHO are on the ground trying to find answers to the questions about the disease, like infectivity and pathogenicity.

Fourth, let’s look at the current influenza outbreak. The CDC has estimated that at least 13 million Americans have contracted the current season flu, and it has been linked to 6600-17000 deaths. And we actually have a vaccine for it that prevents the disease. 

Fifth, despite the anti-vaccine religion’s claims about the CDC, it’s obvious that the brave first responders to infectious disease outbreaks are there to protect humans from deadly diseases. We don’t know if this coronavirus is dangerous, but I’m glad the scientists and public health experts are trying to keep us safe. 

I’m of a similar feeling as the CDC regarding this new coronavirus. Be wary, be careful, but we’re not sure what we’re observing. But get the flu vaccine, because we know what that disease can do and will do.

Citations



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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!