On Friday, it seemed that television anchors in America had just discovered the coronavirus, with a sudden rash of concerns related to news that cruise company Royal Caribbean was barring all passengers from China following incidents that have required quarantines of at least some passengers on two different ships.
But despite all the shocked faces on American television and a new WHO situation report putting the number of confirmed cases at 31,481, there are two reasons that everyone—in the U.S., and China, and everywhere else—should be excited today. One of them is something exciting hidden in the numbers, and the other is even better. And meanwhile, Dr. Li Wenliang, who died on Thursday after Chinese authorities tried to silence his attempts to warn the world about the emerging disease, has become an international symbol of standing up against oppression and speaking the truth no matter the cost.
The Feb. 7 situation report from the World Health Organization shows not only the total number of confirmed cases moving past 31,000, but total deaths now at 637, an increase of 73 from Thursday. None of that is good news, and when looking at a chart of just the confirmed cases, it’s difficult to see anything all that exciting.
But there is some genuinely good news in these numbers, something that’s easier to see by looking at the chart of new cases.
What started as a hopeful drop in the rate of new cases on Thursday became a sharper decline on Friday. These numbers would seem to indicate that the drop in rate of growth was not a one-day fluke, and that agencies within China may be getting a handle on the disease. The rate of new cases—more than 3,100 a day—is still terrifyingly large, and the possibility that the disease could develop new epicenters and resume explosive growth remains very high. But … this is a situation where it’s best to take the good news where it can be found. That’s especially true when the number of new cases outside China took a lurch upward on Friday, with new cases being identified in several Asian countries as well as Canada, Germany, and the U.K. None of the sites outside China represent the kind of international breakout many fear, but the disease inching forward at multiple points is definitely unsettling.
There’s also something unsettling in the data that’s not there. Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia are all among the sites outside China where the number of cases is currently the largest. But Indonesia has reported no cases at all. That’s either extremely fortuitous … or scary. In any case, while the number of infections outside China did move up on Friday, no new countries were added to the list.
The even better news comes from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In a phone call for the media on Friday, the agencies, along with partner companies, announced that they were “on track” for developing a vaccine for use against 2019-nCoV, with human trials expected to start in just over two months. Vaccines could be available to the most in-need areas by the end of April.
And, as the South China Morning Post reports, Dr. Li Wenliang—who was detained by police and temporarily silenced with charges of spreading false information when he attempted to warn agencies about the 2019-nCoV shortly after the first patients were hospitalized—has become an icon of the importance of free speech in China, and not just on matters of public health. Dr. Li, who died on Thursday from complications related to coronavirus, was only 34.
His death has become a symbol of the cost of government repression, and generated a “huge outpouring of grief and anger.” The Chinese government has reacted by sending an anti-corruption team to Wuhan to understand why Dr. Li was silenced.
Failure to fully commit to isolating the infected and acknowledging the novel disease in those initial days may have contributed to allowing 2019-nCoV to obtain a broader footing, and explain how it has already infected so many more people than related viruses SARS and MERS.
The South China Morning Post now shows 1,568 people have recovered from the infection, an increase of 227 since Thursday.
So, in the last 24 hours 227 people recovered, and 73 died. That’s a ratio that definitely bears watching over the next few days to get a better sense of the real mortality rate of this disease.