nCoV ‘fear factor’ greater risk than virus itself?

The recent and quite rapid spread of the novel coronavirus (nCoV) throughout China has become a cause for concern in global markets, with commodities so far bearing most of the brunt. Domestic demand in China, where the outbreak is at its most concentrated, has already been affected, as have some related supply chains.

Numerous countries have evacuated staff and citizens from parts of China. A plane carrying 83 British nationals from Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, landed in Britain on Friday, ahead of a 14-day quarantine at an NHS facility. And, as the UK’s Foreign Office organises the return of a second plane on Sunday morning, it is advising against all travel to Hubei Province and all but essential travel to the rest of mainland China (though not Hong Kong and Macao).

Meanwhile the British Embassy in Beijing has provided new guidance for British nationals in China, noting that, while the risks to health are still relatively low, the elderly or infirm, or those with underlying or chronic health problems should take additional precautions.

“We understand there is considerable concern regarding the spread of the coronavirus. Current Public Health England and World Health Organisation guidance is that, outside the epicentres of Wuhan and Hubei, the risk to the general population posed by novel coronavirus is low provided basic precautions are followed. British nationals should comply with local restrictions and preventive measures where they are based, and monitor developments…” it stated.

“Current advice is to prioritise good hand hygiene – wash hands frequently, especially before and after meals, or when putting on, or removing a face mask, including for a family member/dependent. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser while outside the home, especially when in public spaces such as shops or public transport, after touching objects that might host viruses such as doorknobs, lift buttons and ATMs. Those with children should encourage regular hand washing and the use of hand sanitiser. Limit your exposure to crowds and other potential sources of infection.

“When outside the home, local Chinese authorities recommend using a properly fitted N95 face mask without a ventilator. While advice on the efficacy of face masks varies between countries and health authorities, you may find it difficult to enter public places, access transportation or even enter your own home unless you are wearing a face mask. Therefore, UK guidance is to comply with local regulations and wear a face mask outside the home.”

nCoV in England

Today, Wednesday, a further patient has tested positive for nCoV, bringing the total number of cases in the UK to 3, though it is understood that the individual did not actually acquire the virus in the UK.

Chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty said the patient was being transferred to a specialist NHS centre. “We are using robust infection control measures to prevent any possible further spread of the virus. The NHS is well prepared to manage these cases and we are now working quickly to identify any contacts the patient has had,” he stated.

Public Health England meanwhile said it had reached a “crucial step” in fully sequencing the nCoV viral genome. Making its announcement on Monday, PHE said the data illustrates that so far the virus has not evolved to better infect humans since the sequence was first published by China.

To put the current strain of coronavirus into context, while the number of cases has already exceeded cases of SARS reported back in 2003, nCoV is so far less fatal, though much more infectious. And with the current high volume of international travel and an incubation period of 4–14 days, such infections can spread before the new virus has been sufficiently identified and assessed, suggesting a proportionate pandemic plan may be suitable for some organisations.

“Outbreaks of contagious diseases are health emergencies with a business impact,” says principal consultant at CrisisManagersUK, Roger Kember. “After avian (bird) flu, H5N1; SARS; MERS; avian flu type H7N9 and now coronavirus (type 2019-nCoV), every business needs a pandemic plan.”

nCoV and business continuity

Kember, who worked with the Department of Health to produce the 2002 NHS Pandemic Plan, says HR, business continuity, the communications team, security and risk managers all have a role to play in managing the potential organisational risks.

“The business should already have identified the locations of its employees, suppliers, third-party outsourced contractors, call centres, logistics and distribution chains and sales outlets.

“And because health is the first concern, businesses need to review potential exposure to contamination through business visits to affected countries; visits to your business/town by people from affected counties; staff who had holidays in those countries; and family or coincidental contact with people who have been in those countries.

“Using this review and the current advice of the Department of Health, HR should review its sickness absence policy especially if the official advice is to ‘self quarantine’ at home. Operations, security and HR managers should also review foreign travel and visitor arrangements against the known and potential health risks.”

According to Kember, a communications strategy should aim at reassurance by putting the health risks into perspective (using information from WHO and the Public Health authorities); keeping staff, customers, investors and suppliers informed about the impact on your business and the steps you are taking to mitigate them and reassuring staff and all interested parties of the timeliness and effectiveness of your management of the situation including any health and hygiene measures taken.

Finally, an incident management team needs to oversee and co-ordinate the management of the situation. “With the fast moving nature of the current outbreak of coronavirus, the incident management team of businesses with significant links to the Chinese economy should consider meeting at the start and end of business each day,” he advises.

As ever, the right response is a proportionate one. Useful stats, and answers to such questions as ‘should I wear a mask? And ‘is it safe to receive a package or a letter from China?’ can be found on WHO's website here, along with a host of other useful information for businesses and individuals.

On a positive note, this latest infection does show how China, WHO and risk and business continuity professionals have improved monitoring, information sharing and responses since SARS in 2003. However, as analysts at ING point out, if the outbreak becomes more widespread overseas, the major risk is not infection, but fear, which could begin to take its toll on consumer spending growth among other, more developed economies.

In numbers: Cases in China and elsewhere

According to WHO’s latest Situation Report, published 6th February 2020 and covering the last 24 hours, there were 28,276 confirmed cases globally (of which 3,722 were new).

Of these numbers, China accounted for 28,060 confirmed cases (3,697 new) 3,859 severe cases (640 new) and 564 deaths (73 new).

Outside of China were 216 confirmed cases (25 new) across 24 countries, and one death.

Live updates to the organisation's Situation Report can be viewed here.


Image courtesy of The World Health Organisation

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