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Pedestrians with masks in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay. Photo: Dickson Lee

Debunking the myths around China’s deadly coronavirus outbreak

  • Is there a cure? Does folk medicine work? Answering the questions about the epidemic that has sparked a torrent of rumour-mongering on social media
  • Unverified claims and conspiracy theories are making officials’ jobs harder

China’s health authorities are racing against the clock to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has spread worldwide since breaking out in the central city of Wuhan more than a month ago. At the same time, officials are battling a torrent of rumours and unverified news about the outbreak. Here are some common questions:

1. Can the virus be transmitted among humans?

China’s top severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) expert, Zhong Nanshan, confirmed last week that human-to-human transmission of the virus can happen, after Wuhan’s health commission initially said no proof existed that it could spread from person to person.

Confirmation of human-to-human transmission has since been supported by medical studies, including one published in the medical journal The Lancet on Friday by scientists from Hong Kong University and China’s State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Experts, however, are still trying to determine how easily the virus can be spread between humans, and if airborne transmission is feasible.

Human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus can happen. Photo: Dickson Lee

National Health Commission minister Ma Xiaowei said on Sunday that, unlike Sars, the coronavirus was contagious even in an incubation stage that could last up to 14 days. Ma added that some infected with the virus may not show any symptoms and further risks from the virus’ potential mutations remain unknown.

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“At present, the rate of development of the epidemic is accelerating,” Ma said. “I am afraid that it will continue for some time, and the number of cases may increase.”

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The infected people are mostly aged between 40 and 60, Chinese health officials said. However, the confirmed infected cases also include a two-year-old girl in Guangxi province and a nine-month-old infant in Beijing, indicating that young children and infants were not immune to the virus.

Answer: Yes, the virus can be transmitted among humans.

2. Is there a confirmed cure for the virus?

Scientists have not yet found an effective cure for the recently identified strain, which can cause a wide range of symptoms in patients, including diarrhoea.

Most of the deaths so far have been of elderly and middle-aged people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, but the youngest-known victim was a 36-year-old man from Hubei province.

Beijing’s health commission has previously said it would use HIV retroviral drugs as part of its treatment plan for coronavirus infection.

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An official at the US National Institutes of Health last week said the organisation was developing a coronavirus vaccine that could begin human trials in three months. Meanwhile, Chinese and American scientists at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, the University of Texas and Fudan University in Shanghai are also in the initial stage of developing a separate vaccine.

Answer: No, there is no confirmed cure for the virus.

3. Do folk medicines like banlangen have any effect on the coronavirus?

Social media posts have touted natural treatments such as gargling salt water and eating garlic cloves as potential coronavirus remedies. However, the National Health Commission last week dispelled rumours that drinking a mixture of smoked vinegar and the traditional Chinese medicine banlangen could cure the pneumonia caused by the virus.

Zhang Hua, a respiratory doctor at Beijing Hepingli Hospital, was quoted by the NHC as saying that banlangen was effective against the common cold, but not the coronavirus.

Answer: No, traditional folk medicines like banlangen are only for the common cold and not the coronavirus.

Workers at a medical mask factory in Nantong, Jiangsu province. China is facing a shortage of medical masks and other protective gear as people are called upon to wear masks to contain the virus’ spread. Photo: EPA-EFE

4. Can wearing a surgical mask protect me from the virus?

Face masks have become a ubiquitous sight in mainland China and Hong Kong after the number of coronavirus cases spiked in the past week. As stocks of surgical masks run out in shops and at online platforms countrywide, manufacturers have struggled to keep up with demand.

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Surgical masks may prevent the wearer from spreading disease via droplets from the nose and mouth. But the lack of an airtight seal between the mask and the wearer’s face means that there is still some risk of contracting the virus.

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Medical experts including the World Health Organisation (WHO) have recommended other preventive measures such as frequent hand-washing, covering the mouth when coughing and sneezing and avoiding the consumption of raw or undercooked animal products.

Answer: Surgical masks offer only basic protection from the virus.

A man’s temperature is taken at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in Wuhan. Photo: AFP

5. Does checking the temperature of travellers at transport hubs like airports and train stations stop the virus from spreading across borders?

It has been confirmed that infected patients may not always show symptoms of the pneumonia-like illness but still can be contagious during an incubation period that can last up to 14 days.

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According to David Heymann, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, fever surveillance at borders is not 100 per cent effective, as people can easily pass temperature screening when no symptoms appear.

“The most important thing with borders is to tell people where to go if they should get a fever, sore throat or shortness of breath … and at the same time strengthen the disease detection systems in hospitals, clinics and other places in the countries so that it’s easier to pick up these cases should they occur,” Heymann said.

Coronavirus: all travellers from China to be screened at Singapore airport

Last week, a woman from Wuhan with mild fever symptoms got past airport screeners in France by taking medicine that brought her temperature down. She was later traced by the Chinese embassy in France. As a result, Chinese embassies now urge citizens travelling overseas to comply with airport health checks.

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The virus has prompted a number of airports globally to introduce heightened screening and disinfection measures for travellers from Wuhan and China.

Answer: Temperature monitoring at transport checkpoints cannot stop the virus from spreading across borders.

6. Has it been confirmed that the virus originated from wild animals in a seafood wholesale market in Wuhan?

China’s National Health Commission has said that 33 environmental samples collected from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan tested positive for the new strain of coronavirus. These came mostly from the stalls in the western section of the market, which sold wild animals.

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Experts have still not determined which species of animal passed on the illness to humans, but at least two studies indicate that it was likely to have originated in bats – natural incubators of coronaviruses.

However, a report published in The Lancet challenged the notion that the seafood market should be blamed for the outbreak. The report cited studies showing that 13 of the first 41 hospitalised patients had no connection with the seafood market.

A security guard stands outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where the coronavirus was detected in Wuhan. Photo: AFP

“That’s a big number, 13, with no link,” Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Georgetown, was quoted as saying.

The Lancet report puts the onset of the earliest case at December 1.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has since imposed an indefinite blanket ban on the wildlife trade.

“They need to bring this to a close. I understand that it’s culturally harder for people to see, but the fact is it’s a threat to the world,” said W. Ian Lipkin, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.

Answer: More studies are required to confirm the connection, but the trade of wild animals has been banned in China.

7. Is China using Hong Kong as a Plan B for treating infected patients since it has a better public health system?

An online post which began to circulate in late January claimed that Beijing had directed Hong Kong to help treat infected patients of the virus. The rumours quoted anonymous sources saying the central government had decided Hong Kong could contribute to the fight against the coronavirus by taking in some of the patients from the mainland, since the city had accumulated valuable experience when dealing with Sars 17 years ago.

The wide circulation of rumours prompted the Hong Kong government to issue a statement categorically denying such a directive from Beijing existed. The statement said the rumours were “unfounded” and the Hong Kong government has banned entry to the city by all Hubei residents as well as those who have visited the province in the previous 14 days.

Answer: The Hong Kong government denied that Beijing had issued any directives for Hong Kong to help treat infected patients from the mainland.

8. Is Taiwan banning the entry of all Hongkongers because of the virus outbreak?

Taiwan has further tightened entry measures for mainland visitors, declaring that all mainland citizens who live outside the mainland but want to visit Taiwan for tourism purposes had been added to an entry ban.

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However, the ban did not include Hong Kong or Macau passport holders. Chinese business travellers were still able to visit, but had to allow their health to be monitored for two weeks.

Taiwan had already banned Chinese tour groups and travellers from Hubei province from visiting the island.

Answer: No. If you hold a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport, you are still able to visit Taiwan as a tourist.

9. Given that many of the first infections were linked to a seafood market, can we still eat fish or other seafood?

Many of the first reported patients did indeed have exposure to Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in central Wuhan. Environment samples from the market also tested positive for the virus.

However, the animal source of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus has not yet been identified, and there were a number of animals on sale in that market – not only fish and seafood, but also exotic live animals including wild birds, insects, reptiles and mammals.

Primary genetic analysis of 2019-nCoV showed some traces linked to viruses in bats or snakes.

But there is not yet any scientific suggestion that the virus has a connection with sea life.

Moreover, the virus is heat intolerant, so fish and seafood are at low risk of infection as long as they are well cooked, and cross-contamination with raw meat and uncooked animal organs is avoided.

Answer: Yes, you can still eat fish and seafood.

10. Can pets spread the virus?

Although cats can be ill from a form of coronavirus (Feline CoronaVirus, FCoV) that does not affect humans, the WHO has said that there is no evidence that companion animals such as cats and dogs have been infected or have spread 2019-nCoV – but that keepers were advised to wash their hands after touching their pets, for hygiene reasons.

Dr Li Lanjuan, China’s leading epidemiologist, has said that the new coronavirus tended to be transmitted between mammals, meaning that if a dog or cat had contact with a patient, it too needed to be confined and monitored.

But this does not mean pet owners should abandon or even kill their cats and dogs in panic.

Answer: There is no evidence pets can spread virus.

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen

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