WITH the deadly new coronavirus spreading faster than SARS, it's little surprise that people are questioning how deadly it could become.
Experts warn its lethality will depend on how patients are cared for and treated – and in particular, the availability of critical care beds.
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Scientists writing in The Lancet suggested the variability in the death rate in China came down to differences in local healthcare capacity.
They said: "The rapid escalation in the number of infections around the epicentre of the outbreak… resulted in an insufficiency of health-care resources… negatively affecting patient outcomes."
To put it simply, Wuhan – where the outbreak started – ran out of doctors and beds, according to Paul Nuki, the Telegraph's global health security editor.
The NHS has some of the fewest critical care beds in Europe – about seven per 100,000 people.
If a sudden spike in case numbers and a rush on critical care beds can be avoided, we will avoid the higher death rates recorded in Wuhan
That's compared with Germany, which has 29 beds per 100,000 people.
The only European countries worse off than the UK are Portugal, Sweden, Greece, Finland, Slovenia, The Netherlands and Ireland.
"This is just one of the reasons why the government’s strategy of 'contain, delay, research and mitigate' is so important," writes Nuki.
"If a sudden spike in case numbers and a rush on critical care beds can be avoided, we will avoid the higher death rates recorded in Wuhan."
Impossible to predict
While there have only been 19 cases of the coronavirus, called Covid-19, in the UK it's impossible to know if and when the virus will turn into a major outbreak here.
So far the new virus appears to be less deadly than its cousins SARS and MERS but the spread has been much quicker.
The death rate is two to four per cent in Wuhan and 0.7 per cent in the rest of China and beyond.
Dr Dominic Pimenta, an NHS medical registrar, told the Huffington Post that even a "modest rise in demand" for intensive care will "completely overwhelm" the health service.
He said: "We already have one of the lowest numbers of intensive care beds in the developed world at around 4,000 adult beds in England, and some of the fewest doctors and nurses.
"Many of these departments are run at 80 per cent capacity routinely and regularly utilise 'bank' nurses and doctors to fill long-term staff gaps.
"We can’t fly them in, we can’t train them 'quick', we can’t magic them up. There is no cavalry coming. The cavalry has been propping us up for years already."
Dr Pimenta said that some estimates suggest up to 60 per cent of the UK could be infected with Covid-19.
That's the equivalent of 42 million people with 2.1 million needing intensive care.
More optimistic studies predict one per cent, or 700,000, could be infected and 35,000 needing intensive care.
Dr Pimenta warned that is still nine times as many beds as we have available now.
We aren’t ready for coronavirus and we never would have been
He added that the only way the NHS could be "ready" is if we "went back in time" and rebuilt our infrastructure.
"We aren’t ready for coronavirus and we never would have been," he warned.
Helen Buckingham, director of strategy and operations at the Nuffield Trust think thank, told the BBC the 2009 swine flu pandemic showed the NHS was good at dealing with new illnesses.
However, she said it would far more difficult now because the health service has "very little in the tank" when it comes to staff numbers and hospital beds.
She said: "If there was a short, sharp surge in pressure that would be much more difficult to manage.
"It's not easy to stand up a critical care bed at short notice. It's partly staffing but it's also about the equipment."
The Department of Health says "surge plans" coronavirus patients will be sent to five specialist centres in Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle and London which has two units.
Other NHS hospitals will only take patients if those units are full, the government said.
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