The deadly Coronavirus has arrived in Washington state, and officials are scrambling to contain this first U.S. outbreak. Thought to originate in Wuhan, China, this virus has already infected over 400 people worldwide, and at least 17 deaths have been recorded. Presenting as a type of pneumonia, cases have been logged in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.
Across the nation, airports have begun screening passengers coming in from China, but will these measures prove too little, too late? Is it now time for the president to temporarily shut down travel between the world’s two largest economies?
Authorities in China have confirmed that health workers have been infected, indicating the disease is capable of human to human transmission even in supposedly safe medical treatment conditions. What this means for those in Washington trying to stop the spread is a race against the clock to trace all people with whom the unidentified man has come into contact.
The official name for this strain is 2019-nCoV, which is part of the coronavirus family that includes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
The director of the National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, predicted last week that a case would soon show up in the U.S., and now warns that we can expect more cases. She said, “Information is rapidly evolving. We hope over the coming days the situation will become clear.”
Now that the disease has crossed several borders and is known to be transmittable between humans, it can only be a matter of time before this becomes a serious international issue.
The infections to date are:
- China: 440 confirmed cases
- Thailand: 2 confirmed cases
- U.S.: 1 confirmed case
- Japan: 1 confirmed case
- South Korea: 1 confirmed case
- Australia: 1 suspected case
- Russia: 1 suspected case
While the death toll is relatively low for now – less than 5% of those known to be infected – if the disease spreads further, this could increase as medical teams come under strain.
The World Health Organization is meeting today to determine whether to classify this virus outbreak as a Public Health Emergency.
With any serious outbreak, the time to act was yesterday. Scientists and health workers inevitably have to play catch up and allocate resources and personnel as quickly and efficiently as possible. Although stories of diseases spreading are usually filled with hyperbole, and often a pinch of fearmongering, we know how serious outbreaks of viruses such as SARS can be. In 2003, that disease spread to 37 countries in just six months, infecting thousands with a fatality rate of 9.6%.
The discoverer of SARS, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, subdued fears that this new virus could replicate the devastation witnessed in 2003. He said, “We identified the new coronavirus just two weeks after the outbreak was reported, and we have very good virus monitoring and quarantine measures… I believe the outbreak will not have the impact on society and the economy that SARS did 17 years ago.”
President Trump, as one of his first acts in office, sought to make the U.S. safer by imposing a travel ban on countries that the Obama administration had suggested posed a direct threat. Despite numerous lawsuits and bad press, this was eventually upheld by the courts. Perhaps the time has come for another travel ban. If the WHO does decide to declare an emergency, “it would substantially impede travel in and out of China for both commercial and tourist reasons,” commented Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “That would also suggest that other countries not accept tourists and visitors for whatever reason from China. It really inhibits a lot of commercial work.”
The president, however, is remaining calm and has already stated that the U.S. has a plan to deal with the disease. Speaking to reporters in Switzerland, he said, “We do have a plan and we think it is going to be handled very well. We’ve already handled it very well.” He commended the CDC’s capabilities and assured that, “It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.” The president was also quick to downplay the severity of the situation in China, saying, “We’re in great shape and I think China is in very good shape also.”
Just after signing a trade deal, Sino-U.S. markets are high on the agenda, and a temporary ban on flights into the U.S. from China will no doubt upset the economists. Be that as it may, this outbreak is not yet a national emergency but could soon become one if not handled with care.
Read more from Mark Angelides.