Coronavirus UK: Supermarkets limit purchases amid panic-buying

Panic-buying across the country is intensifying today as supermarkets under mounting pressure are taking drastic rationing action in a bid to deal with the unprecedented demand for goods. 

Britain’s grocery industry has struggled for over a week to keep shelves stocked in the face of stockpiling, which worsened on Tuesday despite weekend appeals for calm from supermarket bosses and politicians. 

But experts have asked why supermarkets have introduced different limits on certain goods, creating confusion for customers and competition among rivals. 

Sainsbury’s has announced it is closing its in-store bakeries, meat, fish and pizza counters and cafes from tomorrow to free up lorry and warehouse capacity, as well as shelf-stacking time, for essential items to be replenished. 

The supermarket will restrict people to only buying three of any single grocery item, in addition to a two-item limit on the most popular goods such as toilet paper and long-life milk which is already in place. From March 23, disabled customers and those over 70 will take priority for online delivery slots. 

Morrisons plans to create 3,500 new jobs and expand its home delivery operation to help it deal with coronavirus.  

Aldi became the first UK grocer to introduce rationing, limiting customers to buying four items of any one product during each visit.

Tesco followed suit by limiting shoppers to five items, and Asda has introduced a limit of three items while Iceland will only open to elderly, vulnerable and disabled shoppers on Wednesday mornings. 

Despite the stringent new measures, shelves at a Tesco supermarket in Ely, Cambridgeshire, were stripped bare just two hours after the store opened this morning. 

And customers at an Asda Walmart in Waterlooville, Hampshire, were queuing outside the door at 6am this morning and within just one hour, shoppers claim shelves were empty as worried households continue to stockpile against government advice. 

Supermarkets have taken different approaches to the virus, with Iceland failing to make clear what goods are restricted, while other stores have a stringent number of items that customers can buy

Supermarkets have taken different approaches to the virus, with Iceland failing to make clear what goods are restricted, while other stores have a stringent number of items that customers can buy

Supermarkets have taken different approaches to the virus, with Iceland failing to make clear what goods are restricted, while other stores have a stringent number of items that customers can buy 

People rushed to enter Waitrose as the shop opened in Clapham Junction this morning

People rushed to enter Waitrose as the shop opened in Clapham Junction this morning

People rushed to enter Waitrose as the shop opened in Clapham Junction this morning 

Customers queuing at Costco in Croydon, south London this morning

Customers queuing at Costco in Croydon, south London this morning

Customers queuing at Costco in Croydon, south London this morning

There were lengthy queues outside a Saver Centre in Willesden, London this morning

There were lengthy queues outside a Saver Centre in Willesden, London this morning

There were lengthy queues outside a Saver Centre in Willesden, London this morning

A large queue at the checkout before 8am at the Sainsbury's superstore in Colchester, Essex

A large queue at the checkout before 8am at the Sainsbury's superstore in Colchester, Essex

A large queue at the checkout before 8am at the Sainsbury’s superstore in Colchester, Essex

People queuing outside an Iceland store in Northwich which opened one hour early to allow elderly shoppers to buy food today

People queuing outside an Iceland store in Northwich which opened one hour early to allow elderly shoppers to buy food today

People queuing outside an Iceland store in Northwich which opened one hour early to allow elderly shoppers to buy food today

A lady looking at empty shelves in a Sainsbury's store in London today

A lady looking at empty shelves in a Sainsbury's store in London today

A lady looking at empty shelves in a Sainsbury’s store in London today

Empty pasta shelves in Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire, at 8am - just two hours after the store opened today

Empty pasta shelves in Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire, at 8am - just two hours after the store opened today

Empty pasta shelves in Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire, at 8am – just two hours after the store opened today

NEW OPENING HOURS, STRINGENT LIMIT ON GOODS AND MORE JOBS: SUPERMARKETS REACT TO CORONAVIRUS CRISIS

Tesco  

Rationed the sale of anti-bacterial products, dried pasta, tinned vegetables, toilet paper and tissues to five packs at a time. 

Limit for key products; disinfectants, hand sanitisers, long life milk, tinned vegetables and pasta, cut from 5 to 2. 

It was forced to take its mobile app offline temporarily due to high demand on Tuesday, and announced it would be reducing the hours of all of its 24-hour stores to 6am to 10pm. 

Waitrose  

Limit of between 2 and 12 units across 400 products, mainly toiletries, cleaning products, tinned food and pasta. 

The supermarket also said it was drafting in 1,200 staff ‘and growing’ from sister retailer John Lewis to help it cope with demand.  

Morrisons  

Rationed purchases on 1,250 items.  

Limit of 2 per customer for toilet rolls, tissues, hand sanitisers; 4 for baby milk formula, bars of soap, handwash; 6 for bleach and other cleaners. 

Shoppers seeking a Morrisons home delivery have been instructed to tell the store if they are self-isolating so goods can be left on the doorstep.

Creating 3,500 jobs to meet surging demand for its home delivery service.

Recruiting 2,500 pickers and drivers while hiring about 1,000 people to work in distribution centres.

Plans for new call centre for those without access to online shopping, plus the launch of a new range of simple-to-order food parcels from next Monday.

Asda 

Restricting all customers to buying up to three items on all food, toiletries and cleaning products.

The limit will not apply to fresh fruit/vegetables. 

Close cafes and pizza counters to free space and staff to help keep shelves fully stocked.  

Temporarily reduced opening hours of all its 24-hour stores, so they will be closed between 12am and 6am each day for re-stocking.

Sainsbury’s  

Limiting shoppers to three items.  

Restrictions include: 

3 meats

1 pack of toilet roll

2 large boxes of eggs

2 multi packs of tinned soups and veg

3 pasta packs

1 hand sanitiser

A cap of two is going to be imposed on the most popular items, such as toilet roll, soap and UHT milk. 

All its stores will only open to the elderly and vulnerable for the first hour of trading on Thursday, but will open for an hour longer so other shoppers do not miss out. 

Meat, fish and pizza counters and cafes are being closed from Thursday to free up lorry and warehouse capacity, as well as shelf-stacking time, for essential items to be replenished. 

Plans in place to beef up ‘click and collect’ service, and these two groups will be given priority access when new slots become available.

Iceland 

Temporary quantity restrictions on essentials.

Supermarkets allowed elderly customers exclusive use of the shop between 9am and 11am before the general public were allowed in. 

The scheme, which will run every Wednesday until further notice, has been rolled out at Iceland stores across the country.

In Boots, bottles of children’s paracetamol Calpol were being sold at only one at a time. 

Co-op

Limit of 2 per customer on essentials including hand sanitiser, soap, antibacterial wipes, toilet/kitchen roll, tinned goods, pasta, rice, Long Life milk, sugar, baby items. 

Aldi

Limit of 4 units for every product from milk and bread to baked beans.

Lidl

Quantities may be restricted to 6 per customer.

Ocado

Limit of 2 for antibacterial handwash, hand sanitiser, antibacterial cleaning sprays and wipes, tissues, toilet roll and kitchen roll.

The Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire closed overnight for the shelves to be re-stocked and there were huge queues outside the doors when it opened at 6am today. 

Just two hours later the supermarket had already run out of many essential household goods, including toilet roll, disinfectant, washing capsules.

It was also running low on dried foods such as pasta, long life milk and cat and dog food.

Panic-buyers also stripped the shelves of a Sainsbury’s store in Colchester Essex, as the supermarket giant slapped shoppers with strict rationing.

The locust-like wave of shoppers have nearly emptied the supermarket chain’s biggest store of vital goods. 

Pictures taken today reveal paracetamol, toilet paper, past, canned goods and bottled water have sold out.

The empty shelves are a stark contrast to the bustling carpark with worried shoppers queuing up in the aisles at 7.30am this morning.

One elderly shopper said: ‘I can’t believe it, I thought there would be more stock coming in. It is like locusts have been through here and gone mad. I only popped in for my weekly shop and I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday shut down social life in Britain and advised the most vulnerable to isolate for 12 weeks. 

In response, from Monday Sainsbury’s will operate an expanded ‘click and collect’ service, with a significant increase in the number of collection sites across the UK. 

Sainsbury’s also plans to reserve hours in stores specifically for the elderly and vulnerable and will give customers who are over 70 or have a disability priority access to online delivery slots.

All of its stores will only open to these two groups for the first hour of trading on Thursday, chief executive Mike Coupe said, but will open for an hour longer so other shoppers do not miss out. 

From tomorrow, Sainsbury’s will also be closing its cafes and its meat, fish and pizza counters in supermarkets. 

CEO Mike Coupe said this measure was to free up warehouse and lorry capacity for products that customers really need, and free up time for staff to focus on keeping the shelves as well stocked as possible.

Chaotic panic-buying has seen people scrabbling to load up with toilet rolls, long-life milk and pasta in a bid to prepare for the worst. 

An open letter, penned by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and signed by the likes of Sainsbury’s, Lidl, Tesco, Aldi, Waitrose, M&S, Asda, Iceland and Morrison’s, was released some days ago warning the public against the effects of stockpiling, but was largely ignored. 

The letter reads: ‘We want to let you know that we are doing everything we can so that you and your families have the food and essentials you need. But we need your help too.

‘We would ask everyone to be considerate in the way they shop. We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without.

‘There is enough for everyone if we all work together.’ 

Earlier this week Tesco – Britain’s biggest supermarket – rationed the sale of anti-bacterial products, dried pasta, tinned vegetables, toilet paper and tissues to five packs at a time starting online on Sunday morning and in stores on Saturday afternoon.

Waitrose introduced a limit to products – including hand sanitizer – that can be bought online.

In Boots, bottles of children’s paracetamol Calpol were being sold at only one at a time. 

Morrisons placed ‘a maximum order number’ on certain products – according to a statement on its website.

Shoppers seeking a Morrisons home delivery have been instructed to tell the store if they are self-isolating so goods can be left on the doorstep.

Asda has a two-product limit on items including cleaning products and hand sanitizer while Aldi has limited shoppers to four items in store.

Meanwhile, lorry drivers transporting essential goods to supermarkets can stay on the road longer without a break to help the response to Covid-19, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced.

He has relaxed drivers’ hours rules as retailers struggle to keep shelves filled due to stockpiling caused by coronavirus fears.

The measure applies to drivers playing a part in supplying supermarkets with food, personal care items, toilet roll, cleaning products and medicines.

The changes include:

– Increasing the maximum daily time a driver can be on the road from nine hours to 11 hours

– Reducing the minimum amount of daily rest from 11 hours to nine hours

– Raising the weekly driving limit from 56 hours to 60 hours

Drivers involved in transporting items to stores or distribution centres are eligible to work extended hours until April 16.

Mr Shapps said the policy would ‘help deliver vital goods to stores across the UK’ but insisted that ‘driver welfare must not be compromised’.

Rules for drivers transporting purchases directly to consumers are unchanged, despite many consumers struggling to book delivery slots amid huge demand. 

Supermarket Morrisons said it has seen retail sales jump 5 per cent since its financial year end due to ‘considerable’ stockpiling amid the coronavirus crisis.

The group, which yesterday announced plans to ramp up its online operations to help meet surging delivery demand, said underlying pre-tax profits rose 3 per cent to £408 million in the year to February 2. 

Full-year group like-for-like sales, excluding VAT, were 0.8% lower, having been 4.8% higher in the previous year.

In a joint statement, Morrisons chairman Andrew Higginson and chief executive David Potts said: ‘We are currently facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty dealing with Covid-19.

‘Looking after our colleagues and customers is our priority, ensuring that we have a clean, safe place to shop and work.

‘At Morrisons, we have a strong, experienced, and above all, determined team of the best food makers and shopkeepers in Britain.

‘We promise to work as hard as we can for customers, suppliers, and all stakeholders to keep our shops operating as smoothly as possible.’

HEARTBREAKING PHOTO OF ELDERLY SHOPPER LOOKING AT EMPTY SUPERMARKET SHELVES 

Lauren Taylor, 34, took this image of a man in a Sainsbury's in Epsom, in the hope of encouraging the public to stop stockpiling and help take care of the elderly

Lauren Taylor, 34, took this image of a man in a Sainsbury's in Epsom, in the hope of encouraging the public to stop stockpiling and help take care of the elderly

Lauren Taylor, 34, took this image of a man in a Sainsbury’s in Epsom, in the hope of encouraging the public to stop stockpiling and help take care of the elderly

A mother’s heartbreaking photo capturing the reality of coronavirus panic-buying is being shared across social media today.

Lauren Taylor, 34, took the image in the hope of encouraging the public to stop stockpiling and help take care of the elderly.

The mother-of-two took the photo in Sainsbury’s near her home in Epsom, Surrey, at 1pm on Friday when she spotted the elderly man trying to find the items he needed.

Her picture has since amassed more than 200,000 likes on social media.

Ms Taylor said: ‘It was awful and just really sad. That was only one aisle and the others were in a similar state of empty shelves.

‘People were grabbing lots of the stuff that were still on the shelves. It’s really just sad and disappointing in society that it’s got to this point. Everyone needs stuff, but he had been left with nothing. 

‘I just want people to think about their own grandparents who will have to go through more suffering. It must be scary for them. If everyone just bought responsibly in the first place these issues wouldn’t have arose in the first place but if everyone buys double, it might be enough to empty the shelves.’ 

Martin Lockwood of Waitrose told the worried queue outside the store this morning that he has had less than 20 units of toilet paper delivered today and they would only be sold to people the government has said to be vulnerable

Martin Lockwood of Waitrose told the worried queue outside the store this morning that he has had less than 20 units of toilet paper delivered today and they would only be sold to people the government has said to be vulnerable

Martin Lockwood of Waitrose told the worried queue outside the store this morning that he has had less than 20 units of toilet paper delivered today and they would only be sold to people the government has said to be vulnerable

People queuing outside Waitrose in Clapham Junction waiting for the shop to open today

People queuing outside Waitrose in Clapham Junction waiting for the shop to open today

People queuing outside Waitrose in Clapham Junction waiting for the shop to open today

Iceland supermarkets have allowed elderly customers exclusive use of the shop between 9am and 11am before the general public were allowed in. Pictured, a store in Northwich, Cheshire

Iceland supermarkets have allowed elderly customers exclusive use of the shop between 9am and 11am before the general public were allowed in. Pictured, a store in Northwich, Cheshire

Iceland supermarkets have allowed elderly customers exclusive use of the shop between 9am and 11am before the general public were allowed in. Pictured, a store in Northwich, Cheshire 

The Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire closed overnight for the shelves to be re-stocked and there were huge queues outside the doors when it opened at 6am today. Just two hours later the supermarket had already run out of many essential household goods, including toilet roll, disinfectant, washing capsules

The Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire closed overnight for the shelves to be re-stocked and there were huge queues outside the doors when it opened at 6am today. Just two hours later the supermarket had already run out of many essential household goods, including toilet roll, disinfectant, washing capsules

The Tesco in Ely, Cambridgeshire closed overnight for the shelves to be re-stocked and there were huge queues outside the doors when it opened at 6am today. Just two hours later the supermarket had already run out of many essential household goods, including toilet roll, disinfectant, washing capsules

Customers queuing at Costco in Croydon this morning. The first customer arrived at 7am, waiting for the store to open at 9.30

Customers queuing at Costco in Croydon this morning. The first customer arrived at 7am, waiting for the store to open at 9.30

Customers queuing at Costco in Croydon this morning. The first customer arrived at 7am, waiting for the store to open at 9.30

Elderly, disabled and vulnerable customers were allowed into Iceland stores across the country before anyone else today 

The scheme, which will run every Wednesday until further notice, has been rolled out at Iceland stores across the country

The scheme, which will run every Wednesday until further notice, has been rolled out at Iceland stores across the country

The scheme, which will run every Wednesday until further notice, has been rolled out at Iceland stores across the country

Croydon Costco: Just before opening time there were several hundred waiting and the queue was growing. An employee warned that action would be taken against any 'queue jumpers'

Croydon Costco: Just before opening time there were several hundred waiting and the queue was growing. An employee warned that action would be taken against any 'queue jumpers'

Croydon Costco: Just before opening time there were several hundred waiting and the queue was growing. An employee warned that action would be taken against any ‘queue jumpers’

What is the Government recommending I do and what is it doing to tackle coronavirus in the UK?

  • Avoid social contact
  • Work from home if possible
  • Avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other social venues 
  • If someone in your household has symptoms of coronavirus you should all self-isolate for 14 days 
  • If isolating, only go outside for exercise well away from other people
  • Ask for help with daily necessities like food and medical supplies
  • If that is not possible – for example if you live in a remote area – you should limit social contact as much as possible 
  • Vulnerable groups should self-isolate for 12 weeks from this weekend even if they have no symptoms
  • This includes people aged 70 and over and other adults who would normally be advised to have the flu vaccination, including people with chronic diseases such as chronic heart disease or chronic kidney disease, and pregnant women 
  • All unnecessary visits to friends and relatives in care homes should cease
  • Schools to remain open for the time being
  • Londoners need to socially distance and work from home even more than the rest of the UK because the disease is more widespread there
  • Mass gatherings will no longer receive emergency services cover if they do go ahead 
  • Increase in coronavirus testing with ‘complete surveillance’ testing in intensive care, hospitals testing patients with pneumonia and GPs testing in the community

Sebastian James, CEO of high street pharmacy Boots, told Radio 4 today that it was ‘difficult’ for rival supermarkets to get together and discuss a plan to battle the coronavirus crisis. 

He also said the problem up and down the country was ‘demand, not supply’. 

He told the show: ‘No supply chain in the world can survive a sudden unexpected global tenfold increase in demand.

‘What we thought [at Boots] was incredibly important was that as many people as possible can get what they actually needed. People have been really understanding.’ 

He added: ‘We’re all in this together.’

But when asked why there was no common policy among shops, he said: ‘It’s difficult for different businesses to get together and decided what they’re going to do – apart from anything else, it’s against the law. What we’ve done is what we think is right.

‘Two items is what we think people need.’ 

‘We’re getting more hand sanitizer, more paracetamol, more pain relief, more cleaning products, more baby products – 504 lines are in demand in our stores.

‘Deliveries are little and often, we ship to our stores every day, sometimes twice a day. Supply chain is beginning to respond to this demand.

‘There’s enough out there. The fact is, we think that it is completely rational for families to stock up on what they really need.

‘But what we’re asking customers is to just make sure that other people can get what they need.’

He was asked why some supermarkets had been slow to react, with no limits on goods and shelves cleared over the weekend, ‘leaving people upset and scared that they can’t get what they need.’ 

Lengthy queues formed down the road in Clapham today as eager shopper rushed to get inside the store

Lengthy queues formed down the road in Clapham today as eager shopper rushed to get inside the store

Lengthy queues formed down the road in Clapham today as eager shopper rushed to get inside the store 

Queues outside a Saver Centre in Willesden, London, early this morning

Queues outside a Saver Centre in Willesden, London, early this morning

Queues outside a Saver Centre in Willesden, London, early this morning

How will the government fund its £330billion bailout package? 

Even before coronavirus hit, the UK’s national debt was due to hit £2trillion by 2024-25. 

However, the crisis now looks set to force the government to underwrite huge sections of the economy to avoid collapse. 

The £330billion of guarantees for business loans offered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak sounds like a huge sum – around double the annual budget for the NHS or equivalent to around £5,000 per head of the population.

But it is unclear exactly how much money the government will need to find for that. Such schemes work through the state standing as guarantor for loans from banks – so the costs only crystalise if firms default.  

Mr Sunak said the direct support for business, including grants and business rates relief, was worth a total of £20billion.

Some of this will add to borrowing, but the government will account for lost revenue. 

Overall, the measures are still set to mean enormous amounts of extra borrowing over the coming years – especially with the economy facing a sharp slowdown.

Fortunately – and counter-intuitively – there is high demand to lend to governments at the moment.

With stock markets in freefall, buying gilts from states is seen as a safe haven. 

That also means the interest rates government pay are low by historical standards. 

In the very last resort, there is also the possibility of printing more money – although that could have disastrous impacts on inflation. 

He added: ‘We went pretty early on this; as a healthcare business we were the first to see people reacting.

‘Loo roll is a strange one – it has a very predictable demand normally its only in these strange times that you see demand going up. 

‘But we could guess that was going to happen with other products [like paracetamol, thermometers].’ 

‘We don’t like this situation – it’s not good for any business. 

‘All retailers like is customers that are happy, safe, secure and shopping and we are all look forward to a time that we can get back to that.’ 

In a letter to customers, Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Mike Coupe said that from Wednesday customers would be able to buy a maximum of three of any grocery product and a maximum of two of the most popular products including toilet paper, soap and UHT milk.

‘We have enough food coming into the system, but are limiting sales so that it stays on shelves for longer and can be bought by a larger numbers of customers,’ he said. 

In an impassioned plea to households, Mr Coupe urged people to ‘only buy what they need’. 

In an email, he wrote; ‘Over the past two weeks we have: Ordered more stock of essential items from our suppliers, put more capacity into our warehouses and set limits on a small number of items, including some cleaning products, soap and pain relief.

‘This is a precautionary measure – if everyone shops normally, there will be enough for everyone.

‘There are gaps on shelves because of increased demand, but we have new stock arriving regularly and we’re doing our best to keep shelves stocked. 

‘Our store colleagues are working tirelessly and doing the best job they can.

‘Which brings me onto a request. Please think before you buy and only buy what you and your family need. 

‘If we all do this then we can make sure we have enough for everyone. And please help elderly and vulnerable friends, family and neighbours with their shopping if you can.

‘I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support and to thank our colleagues who are all working incredibly hard to ensure we can continue to serve our customers well.’

The group said in January that Coupe would step down as CEO on May 31 and be succeeded by Simon Roberts, the group´s current retail and operations director.

However, with UK health authorities predicting the peak of the virus is 10 to 14 weeks away there has been speculation he will defer his retirement. 

Huge queues formed outside an Asda in East London this morning as shoppers flocked to get their hands on essential items

Huge queues formed outside an Asda in East London this morning as shoppers flocked to get their hands on essential items

Huge queues formed outside an Asda in East London this morning as shoppers flocked to get their hands on essential items

A delivery is made to a SPAR supermarket in Belfast as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues

A delivery is made to a SPAR supermarket in Belfast as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues

A delivery is made to a SPAR supermarket in Belfast as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues

People rush to enter Waitrose as the shop opens in south London this morning

People rush to enter Waitrose as the shop opens in south London this morning

People rush to enter Waitrose as the shop opens in south London this morning

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?

What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

Link hienalouca.com

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