Dr. Li Wenliang, one of several doctors who first raised warnings about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in the Wuhan region of China, has died from complications related to that disease. Li was 34 years old.
When first attempting to bring outside attention to the disease Li, along with others, was threatened and even temporarily held by police. Fortunately, the effort to restrain news about the disease did not last for long. Unfortunately, even a few days of delay could have been largely responsible for why the new coronavirus has now generated 28,276 confirmed cases, and why there have been 564 deaths—including Dr. Li.
When someone has “a cold,” that doesn’t mean they have a specific disease caused by “the cold virus.” It means they have a relatively mild respiratory infection caused by one of more than 200 widely circulating viruses. About 15% of colds are caused by one of several broadly established examples of coronavirus.
There are many different species of coronavirus, all of them pretty large for viruses (with about 32,000 base pairs of RNA), which gives them plenty of room for a variety of behavior when it comes to causing disease across a wide range of organisms. While the coronaviruses associated with the cold generate a response that is generally very mild, SARS and MERS are also coronaviruses that emerged as novel forms, just like 2019-nCoV.
SARS proved to have a fatality rate of around 10%. MERS had an astounding fatality rate of 37% when it emerged in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2012. Almost all those infected with MERS had to be placed on ventilation to survive the course of the illness. The potential of both of these infections is genuinely terrifying.
Fortunately, SARS topped out at 8,000 cases over the course of a six-month outbreak. MERS came to around 2,500 cases (and 858 deaths) in an even shorter period. Neither disease has reemerged in a new epicenter, or repeated as more than a scattered handful of cases. Though a healthcare worker did introduce several cases of MERS to South Korea in 2015, they were spotted and contained almost immediately. Both SARS and MERS represent large bullets, mostly dodged. And, except for the extremely unfortunate attempt to repress initial reports, experience with SARS and MERS has largely benefited treatment of 2019-nCoV (which is badly in need of a new name).
Though other sources have published somewhat higher numbers, the official WHO Situation Report for Feb. 6 sets the total number of confirmed cases at 28,276 with 28,060 of those cases in China and 216 in the rest of the world. The number of deaths now stands at 564, all but one of which happened in China.
Those numbers remain frightening. But they do offer some cause for fingers-crossed, don’t get your hopes up, okay maybe just a little hope. Here’s how the latest numbers look when charted out.
If that chart doesn’t reveal the slightly good news hiding in the data, take a look at this one:
After several days in which the number of new cases was not just increasing but the rate of that increase was also ticking up, reported new cases dropped on Thursday—slightly. The number of new cases reported is still massive, easily enough to overcome the vaunted Chinese ability to toss up additional facilities. But it is a hopeful sign, and a real reason to peer closely at the next available set of data.
And here’s some other news that hasn’t gotten much coverage, courtesy of the South China Morning Post. Their coverage of the disease puts the total number of cases slightly higher at 28,403, but it also includes a number that WHO has not been providing in their daily reports. According to the Post, 1,341 people have now come through their bout with the novel cornonavirus and fully recovered.
The number of new cases certainly exceeds the number of recoveries, but this gives some sense of how long it is taking most people to move through the disease. The total number of confirmed cases did not even reach 1,300 until Jan. 26. Hopefully that number of recoveries will begin to rise sharply in the next few days, following the steep rise of infections.
The chance of 2019-nCoV establishing additional epicenters outside of China remains high. And the chance of it growing even more sharply within China remains very high.
As before, don’t panic. But do observe, and plan.