As China scrambles to contain an outbreak of a new coronavirus spreading rapidly within its own borders and to other countries, U.S. infectious disease experts tackled questions about the emerging virus.
What is the novel coronavirus circulating in China?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses responsible for about one out of every four cases of the common cold, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. Some coronaviruses like SARS and MERS are more dangerous, creating more severe symptoms that can lead to life-threatening cases of pneumonia.
This new coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, first emerged in Wuhan, China, a major transportation hub about 700 miles south of Beijing with a population of more than 11 million people. China reported the outbreak on Dec. 30, and the number of cases there have climbed to more than 600, according to PBS.
The virus is believed to have originated in animals, potentially snakes, and jumped to humans. Many of the patients diagnosed early in the outbreak had some link to a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the U.S. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Health officials are concerned because genetic analysis has shown that the new coronavirus is similar to SARS and MERS. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing.
“These are viruses that are new to the human population,” said Dr. Thomas File, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “We’re not immune to them, and they have the propensity to cause more serious disease.”
How infectious is the virus? How deadly?
It’s too soon to tell how well the virus transmits between people and how dangerous it is, but experts say early signs are encouraging.
“Some human-to-human transmission has occurred, but it may not be sustained, meaning no third-generation cases,” Adalja said.
The key will be whether people can transmit the new virus before they develop symptoms, which would greatly hamper attempts to curb its spread.
“A lot of these viral infections, like influenza, you can transmit before you have symptoms,” File noted. “People can really not feel sick but potentially transmit the virus.”
Notably, SARS did not transmit person-to-person until after a patient developed symptoms, File said. If this virus shares that trait, it will be easier to contain.
China has reported 18 deaths among people infected with the virus, meaning it has a mortality rate of about 3%, File said. By comparison, SARS had a mortality rate of about 10% and MERS about 35%.
The deaths in China appear to have been mainly among older men who were already sick with “other medical conditions that place them at high risk for complications,” Adalja said. These conditions included cirrhosis of the liver, high blood pressure, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
What is China doing to contain the virus?
Chinese authorities have locked down several cities that are home to more than 18 million people, in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, PBS reports.
The airport and train station in Wuhan were shut down Thursday, and China announced that the train stations in nearby Huanggang and Ezhou would be closed by Friday. Ferry, subway and bus service has been halted, and gathering places like theaters and internet cafes have been ordered closed.
China also reportedly has canceled large-scale celebrations of the Lunar New Year, which occurs Saturday, File said.
“If this strain of coronavirus acts like SARS, then quarantining people and restricting travel should have a significant impact on reducing the spread,” File said.
How are health officials preparing in the United States?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stationed health officials at major airports in five U.S. cities — Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Atlanta and Chicago. All flights from Central China will be routed through one of those airports, so all travelers can be screened for signs of the virus.
The CDC also has activated its Emergency Operations Center to help respond to the virus, and has sent alerts to health departments and hospitals across the country.
Armed with the genetic analysis of the virus shared by Chinese researchers, the CDC is capable of confirming any cases that might occur in the United States. The agency is working to develop a test it can share with local health officials.
There’s no vaccine for the coronavirus, and it’s not likely there will be one anytime soon, File said. He noted that a vaccine for MERS is only now entering clinical trials, though the virus was first reported in 2012.
Doctors also don’t have any antiviral medicine available to help minimize a patient’s symptoms, as Tamiflu does for flu patients, File said.
But one drug manufacturer, Novavax, has announced it is already working on a vaccine for the coronavirus.
One person infected with the coronavirus entered the United States prior to implementation of the CDC’s screening program, and has become the first domestic case.
The man, in his 30s, who lives in Snohomish County, Washington, flew into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Jan. 15 via an indirect flight from Wuhan. Aware of the developing situation in China, he fell ill on Jan. 19 and reached out to his doctor. CDC officials confirmed his case by the next day.
Health officials are actively monitoring 16 people who came in close contact with the man, who is in good condition and not considered a public health threat. He is being kept in quarantine at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash., out of an abundance of caution.
What can I do to protect myself and my family?
People concerned about the coronavirus should practice the same sort of hygiene that halts the spread of other bugs, experts said:
- Regularly wash your hands.
- Restrain from touching your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands.
- Don’t share dishes, glasses or eating utensils with others, and avoid direct contact with tissues or handkerchiefs used by others.
- Avoid contact with sick people.
Since the coronavirus appears to prey on people with other medical problems, people should also consider getting a flu shot for themselves and their loved ones, File added.