“The problem is that we hardly know anything about COVID-19”

Transparency will be vital in the prevention of a Corona outbreak in Europe, says Eline Verheij, an assistant virus researcher at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research.

Text: Ruben den Boer | Photo: Unsplash

Eline Verheij (37) was part of the Dutch mission to Sierra Leone during the Ebola Crisis, where she identified infected. As an assistant virus researcher at the Dutch Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR), she is still eagerly awaiting more information about the virus and the infected.

“The problem with COVID-19 is that we still hardly know anything about it. We only know what the virus looks like, but we don’t know if the lethal victims had asthma, if they were overweight, et cetera.” This information is vital in the understanding of a virus, according to Verheij. “With the Mexican flu, for example, we knew that pregnant women and kids were particularly susceptive to the virus. This made it relatively easy to handle the virus.” Additionally, the generic symptoms of COVID-19 – coughing, throat aches, muscle aches – make it hard to get a clear view of the actual scale of the outbreak. Some people might not even know they are carriers of the virus.

With more information unfolding almost every day, it gets more and more clear that China hasn’t been open about the information they had on the virus. When the late Dr. Li Wenliang blew the whistle on the Coronavirus – noting it looked similar to the SARS virus – he was promptly silenced by the authorities. The fact that the Chinese government wasn’t sharing information in the early stages of the virus outbreak is right now putting pressure on researchers and virologists.

“Virologists right now are wondering how many people are actually infected and whom of these infected can actually spread the virus.“

The WBVR is getting e-mails every day from research facilities around the world if they are able to run tests on the new Coronavirus. “Virologists right now are wondering how many people are actually infected and whom of these infected can actually spread the virus. Once we know that, we can really start working on an effective vaccine and taking aimed precautions. China is closing down entire cities, but we don’t even know if that’s the right way to tackle this.”

With the high-end medical facilities and the close attention paid to the virus, the risk of a massive outbreak in Europe seems minimal. The current lack of information makes it hard to predict the risk of an outbreak, though, says Verheij: “Right now there doesn’t seem to be any serious risk, but for all we know the virus might already be spreading.”