AS the coronavirus pandemic has come to dominate our lives, there are lots of stories and quack ‘cures’ circulating online and causing an infodemic of misinformation. But the way to beat this virus is to use the medical knowledge and understanding of epidemics which goes back to the days of medieval plagues.

The common term Coronavirus is actually the name for a family of viruses, including those which caused the previous epidemics of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), in 2002, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2004.

As it too results in severe respiratory infection, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called the current virus SARS-CoV-2, and the illness it causes, COVID-19. This is a new virus to which no-one has any immunity, nor do we have any proven treatments or vaccines, so it is critical we understand how it spreads and disrupt the chain of infection.

Initially, many dismissed COVID-19 as similar to any winter ‘flu’ but, as our knowledge has grown, the differences have become stark.

The WHO study of the first 44,000 cases in China showed that 80% of those infected will have a self-limiting condition which, while it may be pretty miserable, will not be life threatening.

However, 20% of COVID-19 cases could become seriously ill and need hospitalisation or even critical care and ventilation. This is approximately ten times the level seen in a bad Influenza A outbreak and is the reason healthcare services could become overwhelmed.

Similarly, the proportion of people at risk of dying from COVID-19 appears to be about 1-2%, as opposed to 0.1% for Influenza A. This figure could become even higher if healthcare systems can’t keep up due to a surge in cases.

We, therefore, must reduce the number of people ill with COVID-19 at any one time so the NHS has the resources to treat everyone who needs it; including people who become ill from other causes during the outbreak. This is known as ‘flattening the curve’, as shown by the many graphics in the media.

Therefore, every one of us has a responsibility to reduce our risk of catching the virus, becoming sick ourselves and putting more pressure on the NHS, or passing it to someone else who becomes seriously ill. This could be due to their age, which weakens the immune defences, or an underlying condition that makes them more vulnerable.

SARS-CoV-2 is a respiratory virus which enters the body, multiplies in the lining of the lungs and can be spread into the air through coughing or sneezing.

This can infect someone nearby, if they breathe in the virus particles, or by getting on to people’s hands from contaminated surfaces and entering their respiratory tract, through the eyes, nose or mouth, if they touch their face.

Good hygiene is therefore critical and the actions people need to take are pretty simple and well proven, both in the case of COVID-19 and in many previous epidemics:

lUsing a paper tissue to catch coughs or sneezes, to prevent droplets spreading into the air, and disposing of hankies in the bin. I’m sure your Grandma used to tell you this all the time!

-Frequent hand washing with soap and water which, due to the fatty layer on the outside of the virus, is as good if not better than sanitiser;

-Not shaking hands, as there is little point in washing carefully and then shaking hands with others with no idea how thorough they have been;

-Not touching your face, which allows the virus enter via your eyes, nose or mouth. This is a common habit and a hard one to break;

-Stopping smoking or cutting down on cigarettes, as smoking reduces the lungs’ immune defences; this is challenging when stuck at home.

Lastly, is what has been called ‘social distancing’ but which we should call ‘physical distancing’, as communities are actually becoming more socially cohesive as they mobilise to support the most vulnerable.

Physical distancing is about keeping well away from those who might have COVID-19, even if they don’t have symptoms yet.

The key is to reduce the risk of inhaling viral droplets they have coughed into the air or picking it up from surfaces they have touched. As this demands really significant changes to our way of life, it is the hardest action to take. While many have been following the advice to work from home where possible, and close down non-essential workplaces, others have remained complacent thinking this is all overblown as they don’t know anyone who is affected.

THE reason for that is that the virus spreads ‘‘exponentialy’’. which means the number of people affected is actually accelerating every day. We know that, on average, each case of COVID-19 appears to infect 2-3 other people. So, from the first case we could get 3 more infected, who then infect 3 people each so we have 9 patients, then 27, 81, 243, 729 until, after 10 transmissions, over 59,000 people could be infected. The result is that cases double or treble every few days, with the increases accelerating as there are more people spreading it, but for a long time the numbers have seemed quite low and people remain complacent. Once the numbers get big enough for people to really notice, it is already spreading too fast to contain.

This is why, no matter how drastic the measures feel, it is only by closing the places where people come into contact that we can reduce the risk of having a runaway epidemic. For younger people, who think they will just have a bit of a ‘flu’, serious cases are occurring in younger adults but, crucially, they could also pass the virus to older parents or grandparents and endanger their lives.

The last pandemic on this scale was the 1918/19 influenza outbreak and the lessons from closing down cities are there for all to see. St Louis, which cancelled all gatherings, had just over a tenth of the deaths seen in Philadelphia, which allowed a large public parade to go ahead.

Obviously closing down all non-essential businesses has a huge impact on the economy and on the resilience of families who struggle financially at the best of times. While faster provision is needed for the self-employed, the financial support offered by both the UK and devolved Governments should help small businesses keep their workforce, improve access to social security payments and help families keep food on the table and a roof over their heads during the crisis.

In the four months since the first reports from Wuhan, COVID-19 has spread incredibly quickly across our interconnected world. But that same interconnection has led to research being shared openly on the internet, as the whole world pulls together. While it took years to identify the virus causing HIV, SARS-CoV-2 was identified in just over a month: followed swiftly by a test. Currently, research teams all over the world are working together to develop improved tests, identify anti-viral drugs that could treat COVID-19 and create a vaccine

COVID-19 is the biggest public health challenge we have faced in any of our lifetimes and until there is a treatment or a vaccine, the only way of getting through this crisis is if everyone plays their part in ‘breaking the chain’ of spread and slowing the disease. That means staying at home!

Philippa Whitford is an SNP MP and Westminster Health Spokesperson.