Coronavirus outbreak: Dr Lance O'Sullivan warns not to get 'overwhelmed' by the hype

Former New Zealander of the year Dr Lance O'Sullivan says it's important not to get caught up in the hype surrounding the rapidly spreading coronavirus. 

Although 81 people have died from the virus so far, we need to keep some perspective, he says.

"It's the latest and greatest in viral crazes - but how dangerous is it? It kills 2.5 percent of people that are infected. It's not as lethal as some, like SARS," Dr O'Sullivan told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

"There has been a lot of fuss made about it, a lot of hysteria, a lot of beat up. The media's got a little bit to answer for that."

The virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Since then it has spread to 14 other countries, including Australia. 

More than 2700 people have been infected with it, with most of those cases in China. No fatalities have been reported outside of China.

Dr O'Sullivan said that deaths related to the virus need to be compared to other illnesses, such as influenza - which kills around 1 million people a year - and issues like cholera, infectious diseases and malnutrition, which collectively lead to the death of more than five million children around the world each year.

"I am concerned that we're going to get pushed down this track of going crazy on this hysteria, we're going to create these pandemic camps.

"The real issue is, we've got other, bigger problems that we should be looking at," Dr O'Sullivan said.

"In 2003, 700 people in the world died from SARS. SARS is massive, it's probably in the dictionary now because of the fact it was so overhyped up. Seven hundred people died globally, about $80 billion was spent - it cost the world $80 billion. In that same year, five million children under the age of five died globally - it's crazy."

Instead of getting caught up in the hype, Dr O'Sullivan suggested a more measured approach.

"There's an opportunity for us not to be overawed and overwhelmed by this sort of frenzy that's going around the world.

"Sometimes we actually have to make a hard call on some things and say 'we would like to save everyone in the world from everything but we can't. We have limited resources'."

On Monday, the Ministry of Health said there was a high likelihood of the virus reaching New Zealand, although the probability of a community outbreak was low.

All travellers who come to New Zealand, who display symptoms within a month of their arrival, are encouraged to seek medical advice, contact a health line or their doctor and share their travel history. 

Dr O'Sullivan said it was useless putting in place screening measures at airports when the virus has an incubation period of 10 days, meaning even if someone arriving in New Zealand has coronavirus they may have no symptoms when they pass through airport security. 

"What we have at our airport, actually if you've ever seen it, is a little sign saying 'if you're sick please call this 0800 number', which I think is ridiculous." 

Last week, the World Health Organisation announced it had decided not to declare a global health emergency following the outbreak.

However, experts have expressed alarm at the rate the virus is spreading. At a press briefing on Monday, Ma Xiaowei, China's National Health Commission Minister, said authorities' knowledge of the new virus was limited and it was unclear what risks awaited if the virus mutated.

The Chinese government has faced increased criticism of its handling of the virus. Officials in Wuhan have taken responsibility for their slow response to the outbreak and many - including the city's mayor - have offered to resign.

According to Dr O'Sullivan, the most important defence against the virus is to exercise "common sense hygiene".

"You've got to be washing your hands [using] cough and sneeze etiquette, keeping yourself as healthy as possible, smoke-free, good nutrition, all those sorts of things."

The Chinese government announced on Tuesday it would be extending the country's Lunar New Year holiday by three days in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. 

Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, has been placed in virtual lockdown following the outbreak and severe limits on movement are also in place in other Chinese cities.