At present, the greatest threat to humanity does not reside in the mountainous forests of North Korea, or the desert plains of Iran and it does not lurk within Siberian missile silos in the far northeast of Russia. A deadly viral epidemic continues to wreak havoc on a distant Chinese city that you’ve probably never heard of and there’s fears it’s already spreading.
At the confluence of the Yangtze and Hanshui Rivers in central China lies Wuhan, a sprawling metropolis with over 11 million people. As the nation’s largest inland port city and capital of Hubei province, Wuhan is one of the most important cities in all of China. The city is now the epicenter for an unknown strain of coronavirus, a virulent respiratory illness that has already claimed the lives of over 100 people in the world’s most populated country.
Looking at images or video of the once thriving city immediately conjures memories of apocalyptic block-blusters that we all hope never play out. What caused the virus to originate in Wuhan, is there a possibility of a global epidemic, and how has the virus affected global markets? We answer all of these questions below.
What is the Coronavirus and Why Did it Originate in Wuhan?
Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses that are shaped like microscopic crowns when viewed under an electron microscope – hence the name corona, latin for crown. The virus afflicting the population of Wuhan is characterized by medical professionals as a novel coronavirus because it has never been seen before. The most infamous coronavirus, SARS, also originated in Asia and spread throughout the continent, killing around 800 people in 2003.
While little is known about this current variation of coronavirus, scientists are confident that it is not as deadly as SARS. A reported 3 percent of infected people have died so far while SARS killed 10 percent of those infected. Researchers from the World Health Organization believe the virus likely originated in bats who then passed the virus on to livestock and wild animals.
Of the first 41 cases reported in Wuhan, 27 of the infected had recently come in contact with animal and seafood products at an open market in Wuhan. China has responded in recent days by placing a temporary ban on wildlife trade. The government has also banned travel to and from Wuhan as well as travel within the city.
China’s black market for exotic animals still thrives in the nation of over one billion. In an open letter posted on the popular Chinese blogging website Weibo, 19 prominent scientists from the Chinese Academy of the Sciences, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and several top Chinese universities pleaded against the trade of wild animals by detailing the “hidden danger” lurking within the unregulated practice.
Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include difficulty breathing, a severe fever, regular coughing fits, and in severe cases, acute respiratory problems, kidney failure, and pneumonia.
How Contagious is the Wuhan Coronavirus?
Epidemiologists estimate the contagion threat of a virus or bacteria by determining the average number of people who come in contact with the infected person and become sick. Experts at the Imperial College of London estimate that, on average, an infected person transmits the virus to 2.6 people.
The rate is higher than some influenza viruses but still noticeably lower than measles in which one infected person can transmit the virus to between 12 and 18 people. Experts believe there could be as many as 100,000 cases of the virus worldwide. The virus is generally spread through human-to-human contact like a cough or kiss. Infected saliva droplets are then absorbed into the body where the virus can then begin to replicate.
Where Has the Virus Spread So Far?
The Wuhan coronavirus has spread to a handful of countries around the globe, affecting an estimated 4,500 people. Currently, Australia, France, Germany, Canada, the United States, and nine Asian countries have reported cases of the virus within their borders. Across the globe, countries are beginning to limit their exposure to China by taking preventative measures.
Sri Lanka has stopped issuing visas to Chinese visitors, while India and Japan have drafted plans to evacuate foreign nationals from Wuhan. The government of Hong Kong announced that it will suspend train and ferry service to and from mainland China starting on January 30th. The U.S. and Canada have urged citizens to avoid traveling to China as well.
How Has the Coronavirus Impacted Global Markets?
It is still too early to determine how global markets will be affected, but there has already been a noticeable decline. By the conclusion of business on Friday, January 24th, the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P had all fallen. The following Monday saw the worst day-to-day decline in months.
One of the major factors that has had a negative impact on global markets is the timing of the epidemic. The Chinese Lunar New Year, which started on January 25th, is typically a time when millions travel and spend money on foreign and domestic goods. As a result of the travel restrictions, an estimated 50 million will not partake in this year’s events.
Consequently, China is already bracing for poor first-quarter projections. Officials in Shanghai, the nation’s financial capital, have ordered companies to remain closed until February 10th. The manufacturing hub Suzhou banned millions of migrant laborers from returning to work for the next week. The expected economic slowdown also comes just after the Chinese government reported its lowest period of economic growth in 30 years.
Some financial analysts argue that global markets historically rebound very well in the wake of health crises. In the wake of the first SARS outbreak virus in April of 2003, the S&P recorded a nearly 15 percent gain the following month and climbed 20 percent in the following 12 months. Similarly, the S&P stood at least 10 percent higher after 12 months in the aftermath of every major epidemic in the last 40 years with the exception of HIV/AIDS, and cholera.
Should You be Concerned About the Coronavirus?
Global epidemics are frightening because of their unpredictability. While the world community has taken steps to ensure the coronavirus is largely isolated to central China, East Asia, and a handful of cases around the globe, experts cannot be completely certain the virus will be contained.
While the Wuhan strain does not appear to be as deadly as SARS, it has shown the ability to easily spread. The Center for Disease Control advises the following: wash your hands, avoid touching your eyes or mouth, stay home if sick, clean your surroundings regularly, and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
By Tyler Dikun and Jim Notaris