The government of Kerala has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a state calamity after three individuals, all students, tested positive for the infection. The three had reportedly returned last month from China’s Wuhan, the origin of the menace, and are being treated at hospitals in Kasaragod, Thrissur and Alappuzha. The declaration of a calamity is not meant to set off panic, but to scale up efforts and funds allotted to contain the transmission of the virus. The southern state has bolstered its efforts to identify, isolate, counsel and treat potential cases of coronaviral illness. It has mobilized 40,000 health staff, as well as officials from other government departments, to mount a contact-tracing exercise. The state has established 28 isolation facilities and traced 80 people who had been in direct contact with the three infected students, placing them under observation in some of the special wards. More than 2,000 people are under community surveillance for symptoms of the flu-like disease. Meanwhile, around 600 Indians airlifted by the Union government from Wuhan are under quarantine in Haryana, and a few suspected of having caught it have been taken to an army hospital. While chances of the virus showing up in other parts of India are not thought to be worthy of alarm, other state administrations should keep a watch on Kerala’s experience, just in case. The Centre, especially, needs to stay on guard. If coordinated action needs to be taken, New Delhi will have to direct the operations.
Apart from evacuating citizens from Wuhan and cancelling flights to China, the Centre has suspended issuing visas to Chinese passport holdersfor the time being. Contagion, it seems, is possible even during the incubation period of the ailment, which means it could possibly get passed on by people who are not even aware of being carriers. On available reports, it could take anything from a few days to a fortnight for signs of the illness to surface. This makes it that much harder to stop it from spreading. In affected zones, many more people are reckoned to have it than the official counts would have us believe. This, however, also means that it may be less lethal than earlier thought. If a larger number are infected than reported, then the initially calculated fatality rate of 2% may well be an overestimate. However, even if the virus is not as deadly as first assumed, there should be no complacency. One reason it has been classified as a global health emergency by the World Health Organization is that everyone is at some risk.
Our medical research establishment may need to get into the act. As of now, no cure has been found. The therapies in use are of the hit-and-miss variety. In Thailand, doctors claim to have made a breakthrough with a combination of an anti-flu drug and anti-virals used against HIV, but this treatment’s efficacy awaits scientific confirmation. Information on the virus is being shared globally and it would help if we also committed resources to what is turning out to be a global mission. After China sequenced the virus’s genome and made it public, private as well as state-employed researchers across the world have reportedly been working overtime on how to tackle it. With an eruption in India, we must put our laboratories to work as well, if they haven’t already got cracking. We may not be the worst hit, but it’s our worry as much as anyone else’s.