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The Wuhan coronavirus – clearing up the confusion (well, at least some of it)

Wuhan, coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, HCoV, animals, humans, SARS CoV, MERS CoV, masks, politeness masks, virus, Anti-polymerase, drugs, starbucks, Cairo University

The 2019-nCoV is causing a global panic but there already exist anti-polymerase, anti-viral drugs that may be able to target this coronavirus and in the Wuhan Institute of Virology there is even talk of a ‘cure’. Amidst the hype and confusion let’s see what really is known.

First, there are a number of different coronaviruses not one. They occur in animals and also in humans, where they are abbreviated to HCoVs. There have been 6 different HCoV’s in the past century and they are all zoonotic viruses, that is they actually transmit from animals to humans via direct contact.

So biochemically this is not Coronavirus, but a coronavirus. The Wuhan coronavirus is a single strand RNA virus and is being renamed – the 2019 novel coronavirus. Although there are all manner of conspiracy theories, it is 96% likely to have come from a bat according to research analysis (1). Anyone who has been to China will know that when you go a local market, the skinned and gutted dogs are on a table next to the rats, bats and pangolins (think aardvark, ant eater). And if they still have their skins on, it’s unlikely they are washed, and thus are full of fleas, ants, anything.

Its two most famous cousins are SARS CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus) and MERS CoV (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome corona virus).

Based on WHO statistics, there were 8,000 reported cases of SARS with 774 deaths and 2500 cases of MERS with 858 deaths. Thus deaths were 9.675% and 34.3% respectively.

Next, this virus is serious because in many cases the patient develops pneumonia, and ant-pneumonia drugs don’t appear to work. Work is being carried out in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and they believe they already have identified a cure which they are testing on mice. They started work in December 2019, with the first infections (2). The infection seems to hit older people the hardest, as would pneumonia, and few children seem to have contracted the disease. Very few non-Chinese people have contracted the virus, despite 15 countries having the disease.

Next, have were learned anything from previous infectious disease outbreaks? Well, apart from simple things like eating bats is not terribly clever and can give you Ebola, and, that the Chinese must alert the world the instant an outbreak of a disease occurs, rather than trying to ‘save face’ (a common Asian practice), we have learned here that 2019-nCoV, unlike normal ‘flu’ doesn’t appear in the new patient the very next day but can take 6-14 days before symptoms appear. This means that body scans for temperature symptoms might well miss anybody infected in the past 5 to even 13 days. This makes complete travel bans and quarantine for 14 days far more sensible.

So people go around wearing masks. A waste of time if you are trying not to catch the disease. Someone else’s sneeze can go on your skin, your hands, the glass or cup you are about to drink from. (Starbucks have shut 2000 stores in China). The masks are ‘politeness masks’. The equivalent of putting your hand in front of your mouth’ when you sneeze or cough. They can stop infected people passing it on. But in terms of stopping you contracting the disease by wearing one, not much good at all.

Finally, do we have anything that could possibly work against the virus? And here the answer is possibly ‘Yes’. While the mass market media express ‘what if it mutated again’ scenarios and ‘we’re all doomed’ (unless the wonderful drugs companies come up with a solution to save the world – the WHO are already asking for donations to support vaccine research), we really ought to be looking at the research and the science more closely.

Anti-polymerase drugs, Sofosbuvir and Ribavirin are both already approved. Sofosbuvir (brand name Solvadi) is used against Hepatitis C virus; Ribavirin is another anti-viral medicine and is used on its own or alongside Sofosbuvir to target Hepatitis C virus.

In SSRN journal on 28 th Jan 2020 a team of researchers from Cairo University Applied Medical Sciences Department showed (3) that Sofosbuvir, along with Ribavirin and IDX_184 was an effective drug against WUHAN 2019-nCoV. They ought to know a bit about coronavirus as the have recent experience with MERS; they used sequence analysis, modelling and docking to build a model for the nCoV RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RdRp). Their paper carried the headline “Sofosbuvir can inhibit the newly emerged Coronavirus (2019-nCoV).”

Meanwhile Health Authorities and Big Pharma are asking for more funding and they won’t get big funding if this is a little storm in a little tea cup.

We shall see.

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  1. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.01.22.914952v2
  2. https://www.cebusite.com/news/2646764/chinese-virologists-have-found-a-tool-that-can-inhibit-coronavirus-2019-ncov
  3. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3523869