The Coronavirus Outbreak Is Overblown

The recent novel coronavirus outbreak has been misinterpreted by media outlets and the public as cause for excessive panic fueled by anti-racial sentiments.

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Coronavirus. This word has been thrown around in the news, with report after report describing its symptoms and the number of confirmed cases. Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, is under federal quarantine, with no travel allowed in and out of the city. On social media, each new “statistic” about coronavirus—erroneous or not—is quickly reposted. But in the middle of a media frenzy, the meaning of the coronavirus and its origin can easily be overlooked. In comparison to the common flu, coronavirus has received a disproportionate amount of media attention. The flu sickened an estimated 42.9 million during the 2018-2019 flu season, of which 647,000 were hospitalized and 61,200 died. The 2018-2019 flu season set a record of being the longest season in a decade, despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) giving it a “moderate” severity rating. The flu is one of the most infectious diseases happening yearly, but it receives little media attention.

Perhaps what makes coronavirus so terrifying is its foreign origin. Scientifically classified as 2019-nCoV, it originated in Wuhan, China; according to several studies on the disease, it was most likely transmitted to humans by bats present in Wuhan wet markets. These markets sell freshly slaughtered meat and fish as well as live animals, most notably bats. These animals are excellent carriers for diseases, most likely due to an abnormality in their STING sequence compared to terrestrial mammals. STING stands for "stimulator of interferon genes,” and, as its name suggests, codes for the production of interferons—a protein that has the capacity to inhibit viral replication. To do so, STING detects cytosolic DNA, a type of genome that may indicate the presence of a virus. If the STING sequence has a mutation, as it does in many bats, it may not be able to detect cytosolic DNA, thus allowing pathogens to infect an organism.

The coronavirus can be easily transmitted from bats to humans because both species have a shared virus receptor: the angiotensin-converting receptor 2, which contributes to increased viral reproduction. Because of this, viruses that commonly affect bats are also able to affect humans.

Due to the shared structural and chemical nature of coronavirus and its viral relatives, doctors believe that finding a cure to the current outbreak would also help prevent the next. Gilead Sciences, a pharmaceutical company, has developed an antiviral medication called Remdesivir. Gilead initially developed Remedesivir in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and though it wasn't entirely successful against Ebola in humans, it has shown promising signs in mice. Though Remdesivir is promising, a vaccine against coronavirus will take years to create. Coronavirus is continually evolving, and vaccine developers will have to perpetually manufacture new vaccines to fight it. There are no definite solutions to coronavirus, and it’s always wise to prevent disease using standard procedure. However, wariness can be taken too far, even with new and relatively unknown diseases like coronavirus. An effective way to put the effects of a specific disease into perspective is to compare it to statistics from previous viral outbreaks.

Coronavirus has infected 12,037 people and killed 259 as of February 1. This is a mere two percent fatality rate. By comparison, the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak infected 8,098 people and killed 774 people, a 10 percent fatality rate, and the 2013 Ebola virus outbreak infected around 28,000 people and killed 11,323, a 39.5 percent fatality rate.

The panic over the current coronavirus outbreak is unfounded. Instead of bringing information to the public, the media has instead misinformed frightened citizens of the world to the point where all news, no matter how absurd, is taken as fact. For example, a viral Facebook video falsely showed a market in “Wuhan” where it was claimed that the virus strain was first transmitted to humans; in reality, the market depicted was an Indonesian market. In addition, several posts on social media have been made showing dead bodies in the hallways of hospitals in Wuhan and people twitching under hospital sheets. These clips utterly lack context, and it is unknown if they actually show victims of the coronavirus outbreak.

The origin of the virus in Wuhan has led to racist and anti-Chinese sentiments against Asians. One headline in a French newspaper read “A New Yellow Peril?”; it references the skin tone of Asians. In the United States, anti-Asian sentiments have been spread over social media depicting the Chinese as unclean, uncivilized, or immoral through images and videos showing Chinese people eating bats, the original host of coronavirus, and live rats. In South Korea, a widely-circulating Youtube video claimed that the current coronavirus was leaked from a biochemical weapons factory in China, furthering anti-Chinese ideology in non-western countries. In Australia, an Instagram post warned that shops in Sydney containing items like fortune cookies, rice, and the Chinese version of Red Bull were contaminated with coronavirus. An Australian newspaper, The Herald Sun, had the line “China Virus Panda-monium” over an image of a red mask as their headline.

The impact of such messages is undeniably far-reaching. It has led some restaurants in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Vietnam to ban Chinese people from eating in their restaurants. In Singapore, tens of thousands signed a petition to the government to ban Chinese nationals from entering the country. Many East Asians all over the world have shared their stories of discrimination due to the outbreak. The New York Times reported that in France, a Vietnamese woman was insulted by a cab driver who exclaimed, “Keep your virus, dirty Chinese!” and “You are not welcome in France!” Additionally, the University of California, Berkeley, has recently shared a now-deleted social media post on their health department’s Instagram account stating that xenophobia is a normal reaction to the coronavirus outbreak.

While this epidemic should be taken seriously, it is also imperative to understand that it isn’t directly linked to ethnicity or nationality. Coronavirus is incredibly infectious due to its linkage between humans and animals, but the country of origin does not affect how contagious it is. The panic it caused as it took the world by storm stems from the lack of understanding about coronavirus, especially its non-lethality. CDC-recommended guidelines for coronavirus prevention include regularly sanitizing your hands, cleaning often, and taking immediate action when experiencing symptoms; none of these things require governments to enact anti-Chinese travel bans or for people to harass others for their ethnicity. Justifying such actions is not a precautionary measure against an epidemic. And compared to previous outbreaks, the coronavirus is a reason for caution, but not widespread panic.