coronovirus mask china airport temperature checks
© Getty Images / Anadolu Agency
Citizens wear masks to defend against new viruses on January 22,2020 in Guangzhou, China
As the Chinese coronavirus spreads rapidly around the globe, governments worldwide are making a show of doing something. But are their measures effective, or just exercises in population control?

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization may declare an international public health emergency. Whether or not they do this will greatly affect the response of both the Chinese government and others in dealing with the outbreak of the 2019-nCoV virus that has already infected hundreds and killed nine.

Person-to-person transmission

Prior to Monday, the only known cases of the virus were all from people who had been in Wuhan — suggesting they all caught it at the illegal wildlife market thought to be ground zero for the plague. As the virus has an animal origin, it was hoped at first that it could only jump from the animal source to humans.

But now we know the virus can be transmitted from person to person, things look much bleaker. In the last few days the virus has spread to Taiwan, and there has been one confirmed case in Seattle, USA. Screening efforts are to be stepped up by Australia, Russia and the UK for passengers arriving from Wuhan. One man in Australia has been quarantined.

The airport checks so far seem to be simple temperature tests, as one of the symptoms of the virus is fever. This is hardly a sure-fire way of stopping a single microscopic particle from entering a country. If governments were really serious, surely they would be cancelling flights from Wuhan's international airport by now. But perhaps they are waiting for the Chinese to act first, so as not to be seen as hauling up the lifeboats.

Martial law coming to Wuhan?

China's National Health Commission Vice-Minister Li Bin has told people not to enter or exit the city of Wuhan, but this means little unless it is enforced. Reportage from Wuhan itself has been scarce, so it is difficult to gauge the mood on the ground there. Are people panicking and trying to leave? So far there have been no reports to that effect, or of military intervention in Wuhan. But the Chinese government will be considering all options as they seek to control the situation.

And they will not hold back. In 2009, an outbreak of flu saw schoolchildren with high temperatures sent home, and passengers entering the country put into quarantine for up to a week if they had flu-like symptoms. For 2019-nCoV, now is the most critical stage for prevention and control, before cases of the virus exponentially increase, but it could be that the Chinese believe that the virus is already beyond their control.

Mr Li has had to admit the virus is contagious by respiratory tract — in other words, coughs and sneezes. This is the easiest way for a virus to spread, and there is practically nothing that can be done to slow or stop it. Hand sanitizers and facemasks will never be ubiquitous, and in any case, do they even work? A 2012 study showed that, while washing your hands is effective against the flu virus, merely wearing a face mask did not make a statistically significant difference to rates of infection.

As if to prove this, at least 15 medical workers in Wuhan are now infected. These people would have been taking every precaution, swaddled in quarantine gear and face masks, implying that the virus is easily making the jump from person to person.

Is there anything that does work?

Hopefully we will never know what it takes to stop a highly contagious and deadly disease from spreading throughout the world. It could look like the Hollywood science fiction movies about such things — soldiers patrolling the streets with cities on lockdown, medical services stretched beyond breaking point, and sick people unable to access the few available doctors. Unless such a plague emerges, it is probably not even worth restricting travel or screening passengers at airports.

Such measures have more to do with hope than with reality, and perhaps with people's perceptions. Modern people want to feel as if they have control over every situation, or that there are some measures the government can take to protect them. But in truth, beyond personal precautions like washing your hands and cooking meat thoroughly, if you become infected you have only your immune system to save you. So the schools will continue to be shut, the soldiers rolled out and the gas masks distributed. But this particular enemy cannot be shot at, locked up or bargained with. Meanwhile, shares in Chinese face mask manufacturers have risen by 10%.
Peter Andrews is an Irish science journalist and writer, based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in Genetics