While fully recognising the horrific implications, the suffering and the general misery that a global pandemic of 2019-nCoV (or any other microorganism) would cause, as a microbiologist, I do love a good outbreak.

The pure epidemiology of it. Chasing the source, following the virus from person to person, place to place. Wondering how fast and where exactly you build your metaphorical walls to keep everything inside (hint: it’s earlier and wider than those in charge in Wuhan did).

This outbreak is interesting for additional reasons too. The media is struggling with the technicalities of the problem, and are (of course) more anxious to sell papers and clicks than to present an accurate picture of what’s going on. But their hands may be tied on that account anyway, given that we are relying the notoriously secretive Chinese authorities to share the stats and the news. Add to that all the individuals who have read a post on the internet (Web MD if you’re lucky, but far more likely Mercola, ugh) and once had a cold, and are now sharing their expert opinion, full of misinformation, yet which is spreading faster than the actual virus.

Even real medical experts in the US are jumping on the panic bandwagon, confident that they can either play the “I told you so” card to the remaining post-pandemic shards of humanity or have their words forgotten along with the damp squib of the apocalypse that never was.

I’ve had a number of friends and family asking me about it, and they generally leave disappointed with my response, which – rather than pooh-poohing the pandemic panicmongers or damning those who are dismissing the virus as nothing to be worried about – takes a far more moderate line:

Mmm. Well, we’re going to have to wait and see.

OMG. SOOOOOOO BOORING, in this this world where instant opinions are the lifeblood of decent conversation and intercourse, but the fact is that if one takes a step back and reviews what’s happened so far, we simply don’t have enough information yet to do much other than speculate.

Because we just don’t know how many infected individuals “escaped” the cordon around Wuhan (actually, nor are we ever likely to), we don’t know where those people are, and we don’t know exactly how long they are contagious for before they start displaying signs and symptoms of disease. And all of these (and more) are required before we know how this is all going to pan out.

The next week or two will give us some pointers to each of these quandaries, and armed with these extra data, we can start to make a more informed decision about where things are going. At that point, some of those who have already voiced an opinion will be right, and some will be wrong. At this moment, we don’t know which is which. And that should surely send some sort of warning out about believing everything you read or hear.

For the moment, I wouldn’t advise travel to Wuhan, nor contact with anyone that’s been there in the last 6 weeks or so. In addition, wash your hands regularly and get the flu vaccine when it becomes available. Those last two won’t stop you contracting 2019-nCoV, but they’re just good practice.

Maybe we’ll revisit this subject when we know a bit more about what’s going on. Maybe not.

Either way, stay healthy. 🙂

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