As of Friday morning, the official numbers from health officials in China stood at 213 people dead and 9,709 confirmed cases as the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread both in China and 18 other countries around the globe. In the United States, the first secondary infection was confirmed as a returning traveler spread the disease to her spouse. Other family members are under observation. With more than 140 cases now identified outside China, including the first cases in the U.K., the World Health Organization has declared a “Public Health Emergency.”
In addition to the confirmed cases, Chinese officials reported to the WHO on Thursday that there were an additional 12,167 suspected cases. Of the identified cases, 1,370 are regarded as “severe.” Every estimate continues to show that the coronavirus spreads easily from person-to-person, with a very high rate of infection, and the novel nature of the disease means that there is no reservoir of natural immunity or any available vaccine. The possibility of a genuine pandemic that could lead to staggering rates of infection, global disruption, and an overwhelming number of deaths remains all too real. However, there are some encouraging signs that shouldn’t be overlooked.
While the Wuhan coronavirus has spread widely across China, particularly around the unofficial namesake area where infections first emerged, the spread of the disease around the world has not been as drastic as some models might have suggested in a highly connected world. On Thursday, 83 cases had been identified in 18 countries outside China. However, only seven of these cases represented secondary infections—that is, infections among people who had not traveled to the region where the disease has become widespread. Those seven cases are restricted to three countries, including the one in the United States. So far, there have been no known deaths connected to the Wuhan coronavirus outside of China.
All of this suggests that a system of health alerts—including much better early warning and openness inside China—is working exactly as it was designed following the last major eruption of a novel coronavirus, SARS.
The 2003 emergence of SARS was hampered by a Chinese government that initially failed to share information with WHO and other organizations. Not only did this affect the spread of SARS within China, it also limited the information that was available to health officials facing the disease when it reached other locations, including Toronto where a lack of preparation and some serious miscalculations contributed to the severity of the outbreak and number of deaths. In all, just under 800 people died in the original SARS outbreak, with 650 of those deaths occurring in China and Hong Kong. SARS provided the world a much-needed wake-up call, and it may be that the call came at exactly the right moment to brace the system for this new coronavirus.
That’s all the good news. The bad news is that Wuhan coronavirus appears to be more infectious than SARS. How it rates in severity (SARS had a fatality rate of almost 10%) won’t really be known until more people pass completely through the infection and begin recovery.
The bigger threat in the short term may not be the disease itself, but the disruptions resulting from fear of further spread. Already, Russia has closed its border with China. Both ships and planes thought to be harboring infections have been quarantined or turned away from ports. The United States has evacuated large numbers of diplomatic staff and issued warnings against travel to any part of China. Within China the economic impact is already large and still growing. That wave of economic malaise may radiate much more quickly than the virus.
It is not time to panic over the threat represented by coronavirus. However, it is time to consider the possible effects of prolonged disruption from interrupted supply chains, shortages of items manufactured in China, or further restrictions of travel and trade. Companies, educational facilities, and city managers are already looking at what it could mean if there is an extended disruption of normal activities—not because the coronavirus is likely to have the devastating reach of the 1918 flu, but because the steps necessary to arrest its spread may mean taking unfamiliar actions.
It’s also very much time to debunk the dangerous myths whose internet transmission rate is way, way too high. That includes the idea that the novel coronavirus is a manmade bioweapon which … it’s not.
This isn’t time to panic. It is time to stay aware of the course of this emerging disease and what steps are being taken to address the outbreak.