The Coronavirus outbreak in China is getting scary, but not because of some government coverup. The Chinese government, facing at least 17 deaths and over 500 sickened from this biological threat have closed travel in the cities of Huanggang, Ezhou and Wuhan, cutting off 20 million people.
The CDC’s monitoring events went from an “incident” on January 7, to a full blown activation of its Emergency Response System on January 21, when the first U.S. case was confirmed. Screening of passengers at key airports with international flights began on January 17. The CDC upgraded its Traveler’s Health Notice on Coronavirus from “Watch – Level 1” to “Alert – Level 2 – Practice Enhanced Precautions.” The CDCs highest level is a Warning, Level 3, Avoid Nonessential Travel. It’s obvious the Chinese are already there.
Here’s why governments think this is a bit scary.
As widely and competently reported in the media, Coronavirus is a family of respiratory viruses linked as “a cousin of the SARS virus.” It causes pneumonia, fever, breathing problems, and for weaker or older people, it can quickly lead to death. It takes two weeks in incubation before symptoms show up, so the confirmation of one case in the U.S. means that the virus entered our country possibly two weeks before that.
This wasn’t really deemed a big issue two weeks ago, since it was believed the virus was only transmitted from animals to humans. The sick in China were believed to be in a region populated by cattle and other facilities and markets, so while they were watching, the CDC and Chinese officials were trying to pin down the source as an animal to human outbreak.
But then it appeared Coronavirus can spread from human to human. As the CDC notes in its risk assessment:
Outbreaks of novel virus infections among people are always of public health concern. The risk from these outbreaks depends on characteristics of the virus, including whether and how well it spreads between people, the severity of resulting illness, and the medical or other measures available to control the impact of the virus (for example, vaccine or treatment medications).
Investigations are ongoing to learn more, but some degree of person-to-person spread of 2019-nCoV is occurring. It’s important to note that person-to-person spread can happen on a continuum. Some viruses are highly contagious (like measles), while other viruses are less so. It’s not clear yet how easily 2019-nCoV spreads from person-to-person. It’s important to know this in order to better assess the risk posed by this virus. While CDC considers this is a serious public health concern, based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time. Nevertheless, CDC is taking proactive preparedness precautions. (emphasis mine.)
The Chinese, and the CDC, don’t know how well Coronavirus spreads from person to person. There are a sufficient number of infected people in China to make this very, very scary for Chinese officials. The number in the U.S., separated by two large oceans, is considered to be manageable, so the CDC is focused on screening and fast testing.
CDC has developed a real time Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) test that can diagnose 2019-nCoV. Currently, testing for this virus must take place at CDC, but in the coming days and weeks, CDC will share these tests with domestic and international partners through the agency’s International Reagent Resource.
The CDC has also sent a team to Washington state where the first confirmed case was reported.
We don’t know how fast this virus can spread, so we need to be careful traveling to China.
If you are planning to fly to China, I would delay the trip. The Chinese are not effectively quarantining 20 million people for no reason. This also isn’t some giant coverup of a world-killer virus. They just don’t know, and that’s why it’s a bit scary.
I have faith that, like the previous SARS, bird flu, and other outbreaks, our scientists and health professionals will figure it out and contain it. But let’s be cautious. Don’t panic, but let’s recognize that until this strain of Coronavirus and how it spreads is understood, we need to be a little bit scared.