What Is Coronavirus, the Mysterious Virus Spreading Across China?

EJ Dickson

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Recently, reports from Wuhan, China, started circulating of people getting sickened by “novel coronavirus,” or 2019-nCoV, a mysterious virus that has been spreading across China. As of Thursday afternoon, there are 653 confirmed cases of n-CoV and 18 people have died from the virus, with some suggesting the actual count could be much higher. The rapid spread of the virus has prompted the central Chinese city of Wuhan to issue a temporary (and historically unprecedented) ban on citizen travel to contain the epidemic, shutting down all public transportation including buses, ferries, and air travel. On Thursday, the Chinese government announced that the neighboring city of Huanggang would also be locked down. Further complicating matters, this edict has been issued during the Chinese New Year, which is one of the busiest travel periods in the country.

As the virus spreads outside of China, with at least one case reported in the United States, social media reaction has ranged from bewilderment to panic to overt racism (no, the virus is not spread by Chinese cuisine, despite extremely offensive suggestions to the contrary). But what exactly is novel coronavirus, and how much do we need to panic?

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What is this virus, and where did it come from?
While we know relatively little about the virus, we do know that it is a new type of coronavirus, a kind of virus that originates from mammals and attacks the respiratory system. Its origins have been traced back to a live-animal market in Wuhan, though not everyone who’s contracted the virus has reported having visited the market or having contact with animals there.

“Most [coronaviruses] in humans cause milder infections that we would call the common cold,” David Earn, a professor of mathematics specializing in modeling infectious disease epidemics at McMaster University, explains to Rolling Stone. “But occasionally they can be more serious.” One example of a more dangerous coronavirus is the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, which spread in 2002 and 2003 and infected thousands of people, killing hundreds.

As far as we know, the symptoms of 2019-nCoV are similar to those of pneumonia, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But the severity of the symptoms also ranges widely. “What we understand with the 2019 virus is it can cause a range of disease in individuals affected, from mild disease all the way to severe disease and death,” Dr. Maria D. Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization said in a press conference on Wednesday. So far, older people appear to be most at risk for complications. According to Kerkhove, 72 percent of victims in the most severe cases have been over 40 years of age, with 40 percent having “significant underlying diseases” such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes; interestingly, nearly two-thirds of the victims are male.

Where has the virus spread?
While the majority of cases have been located in China, cases have been confirmed in at least five other countries, including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States. On Wednesday, Hong Kong authorities reported that a 39-year-old man traveling from Wuhan had tested positive for the disease and was currently being quarantined, but four family members who had traveled with him had been permitted to travel to Manila in the Phillippines. Australia is also monitoring suspected cases.

The one case reported in the United States involves a man in Washington state in his 30s, who recently traveled to Wuhan to visit family members; he tested positive for the virus after being hospitalized for pneumonia-like symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control has reported that he has been quarantined and is in good condition. Though the CDC stated in a press conference on Tuesday that more U.S. victims are expected, earlier this week President Donald Trump appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box to say the U.S. had the virus “totally under control.”

How has the Chinese government responded to the epidemic?
In many respects, the Chinese government’s response to the epidemic has been markedly better than its response to the spread of SARS nearly 20 years ago, when many global public-health experts criticized the government for its inefficiency and lack of transparency. During the press conference on Wednesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the Chinese government’s response has been “very, very commendable,” applauding authorities for identifying clusters quickly and fostering “cooperation and transparency” with other public-health departments around the world.

Not everyone in China shares this opinion. Some members of the Chinese media have suggested that the government has underreported the casualty rate. Others have accused authorities of being slow to report the spread of the virus, pointing out that while the first case of viral pneumonia was reported in Wuhan on December 8th, the government did not issue an official notice about 2019-nCoV until December 31st. And the government censorship machine also seems to be playing a role here: Shortly after the first municipal health department statement was issued about the virus, Wuhan authorities detained eight people for “spreading rumors about pneumonia.”

How worried should we be in the U.S.?
Following the quarantine, many on social media speculated whether the spread of 2019-nCoV signaled an epidemic of disastrous proportions, sharing links to articles predicting global pandemics to bolster such conjecture. And the fact that many health care workers have been infected is also alarming, indicating that the virus spreads quickly and easily, even in situations where people are adopting precautionary measures such as wearing surgical masks and gloves. “It’s always a sign of alarm when that happens,” Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Vox.

The truth is, however, there’s very little we currently know about the virus — how it spreads, or how quickly it travels from person to person — certainly not enough to warrant fostering mass panic, says Earn, the professor at McMaster University. “The fact that there have been hundreds or thousands of cases doesn’t mean it’s really effective [at spreading person to person],” he says. “We have to wait and see, and we need more information.” The duration of the latent period of the virus, for instance, or the length of time between exposure and infection, is currently unknown. If the latent period is longer than the incubation period, or the amount of time between infection and onset of symptoms, “then you’re in good shape,” says Earn. But if it’s shorter, “that means you can start to infect others before you have an inkling if you’re sick yourself. And that’s the more concerning situation because it makes the virus obviously a lot harder to control.” If the virus turns out to be transmissible before an infected person exhibits symptoms, “then the effectiveness of quarantine and isolation is unfortunately less.”

It’s important to note that up to this point, the World Health Organization has refrained from declaring a public-health emergency, a decision that Ghebreyesus affirmed in a statement on Wednesday. “The decision about whether or not to declare a public-health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence,” he said. The global response to SARS has also been instructive in terms of the WHO’s handling of 2019-nCoV: “The global community has learned a lot from SARS and a lot from MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome, a respiratory disease stemming from bats that started spreading in the early 2000s], and we are building from that knowledge,” said Kerkhove.

But while news of the quarantine might sound frightening, Earn says it’s a step in the right direction. “Generally speaking, it’s better to react strongly than weakly,” he says. “If you overreact [to the threat], maybe you have inconvenienced a number of people. But if you underreact, you could end up with people getting sick and dying.”

This story is being updated. 

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