Infectious diseases expert Dr Siouxsie Wiles spoke with Herald Focus Live presenter Will Trafford about the coronavirus and what you need to know to stay safe.

Siouxsie is a microbiologist and science communicator, well known to many Kiwis for her clear explanations of scientific topics and her bright pink hair.

The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has infected more than 100,000 people - more than 57,000 have recovered, about 3500 people have died. There are five cases in New Zealand.

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According to Wiles, it can cause very serious pneumonia which requires people to be in intensive care as they struggle to breathe, and she assumed the deaths are from that.

Here are some of the questions that were asked.

How concerned should Kiwis be?

"For the general public, this is concerning but you shouldn't be panicking," Wiles said.

"There are a lot of other diseases that we should be panicking about more, like influenza.

"I think that it's an evolving situation, but at the moment there's no reason for the general public [to act out] because of an outbreak. "

Why have precautionary measures been taken?

Wiles said since the first reports of the virus, experts have slowly been able to build a picture of what it can do.

"We know a couple of related coronaviruses have caused very serious infections.

"Sars had a death rate of 10 per cent and that was stopped by halting the transmission of the disease from one person to the other and getting rid of the original source, and we haven't seen it since."

Another strand called Mers had a much higher death toll, 35 per cent, but was more difficult to get, she said.


"So what we didn't know when it started was: 'How transmissible is the virus and what is death rate?'

"And those first early cases it was looking very serious … and what we have learnt from Sars, they have been rushing to contain it."

What precautions should we take?

Wiles said the best way to avoid the virus is to not touch surfaces and avoid close contact with people who you think may have the virus.

"It's very clear that people who have it are shedding the virus through their respiratory secretions … so with every cough, or sneeze you end up releasing lots of different particles in different sizes.

Infectious diseases expert Dr Siouxsie Wiles spoke with the Herald's Focus Live presenter Will Trafford about the coronavirus and what you need to know to stay safe.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Siouxsie Wiles spoke with the Herald's Focus Live presenter Will Trafford about the coronavirus and what you need to know to stay safe.

"The really big ones they drop very quickly onto surfaces, so if you touched a surface that had a virus and that virus was still alive and you touched your face, you can get infected that way."

This can also happen when people cough into someone's eyes or mouth, she added,

"The really small particles, they can hang around the air. It is not known how long they will hang around for."

Wiles said that people should use sanitiser, wash their hands frequently and try not to touch their faces.

She said there was cause for concern for those who get a sore throat or other symptoms, and have been to China, or know someone who has pneumonia.

"If you're unwell, stay home, don't go and see other people, and call the Healthline and tell them what your symptoms are and they will let you know if you should be tested or not."

Do we need to wear a surgical mask?

"Culturally in countries like China, people wear masks not to prevent infection, but when they have cold – to stop spreading it," she said.

"It doesn't stop the spread of everything. If you wear a mask, it won't protect you from the virus [but] it will stop somebody who is coughing and sneezing from spreading the big particles that will have the virus."

"The mask people are running out to buy and spending a stupid amount of money for is a surgical mask.

"It is for surgeons to make sure they are not spitting on their patients or dropping anything onto them.

"It's not very good at blocking viruses coming in. People don't wear them properly, they don't make a good fit around [your face]. If you have a gap, you're breathing stuff in.

"There are other masks that we would use in the lab for when we're doing dangerous stuff and they are very different.

"They are made from different material and that is much better at blocking things."

Can coronavirus spread in NZ as it has done in China?

"We don't have the density, so I don't see us having an outbreak as China has.

"If it does establish here, I think it would go along the lines of an influenza outbreak, where a lot of people end up getting it but it's not that serious for everybody – but it may be for some who have underlying problems."