As the Wuhan coronavirus spreads beyond China to the U.S. and Europe, more is being learned about the strain that’s killed more than 100 people and infected more than 4,500 across the globe.
Adding to concerns, Chinese health officials issued an update Sunday claiming that the deadly virus is capable of being passed by infected individuals over a longer-than-previously-thought incubation period — even before symptoms, like a fever, start presenting themselves.
According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the “Dr. Oz Show,” that development is particularly troubling in that it could complicate the already heightened efforts to stop the virus from spreading.
“The major surprising and a little concerning observation ... is that the incubation period for this new coronavirus is closer to two weeks than the usual one week or less. And so, [with] SARS within five or six days you knew you had it and you only passed it along once you knew you had symptoms, so there were things you could do to protect the people around you,” he told Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM. “It turns out with this virus that may not be the case, you may be able to go around for a while without realizing you’re ill all the time contagious to those around you. So, the usual tactics that we would use to make people feel secure, [like temperature] screening at airports ... that won’t work if an afebrile person can pass the virus along.”
That could explain why China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been so drastic as to include the mandated lockdown of at least 16 cities, totaling a combined population of more than 50 million people. Given the country’s history of a lack of transparency stemming from its shrouded response to the deadly SARS outbreak in 2002, world health officials have been paying close attention to the updates provided by China in regards to the current outbreak. Even President Donald Trump reiterated an open flow of information with the Chinese Monday, tweeting, “We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus.”
We are in very close communication with China concerning the virus. Very few cases reported in USA, but strongly on watch. We have offered China and President Xi any help that is necessary. Our experts are extraordinary!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 27, 2020
Dr. Oz reiterated the idea that China was more open in its response this time around compared to the SARS outbreak.
“Right now we’re in a world where everyone thinks, ‘Are the Chinese lying?’ And I gotta say, from everything I’ve heard from the President down to folks on the ground in China, the Chinese government seems to be trying to tell the truth unlike what happened in 2002 and 2003 when that information gap really could’ve done much more damage than it ended up doing,” he said.
‘Best thing to do is auto-immunize yourself’
But with the Centers for Disease Control confirming at least five coronavirus cases in the U.S. Monday, with each case stemming from travelers returning from recent travel to China, Dr. Oz urged Americans to stay calm by highlighting the fact that the virus’ so-far documented 2% mortality rate trails the 10% mortality rate of SARS by a wide margin.
“I’m not handing out masks, I don’t think people oughta be wearing them,” he said. “The best thing to do is auto-immunize yourself by washing your hands and I know that sounds so simple and almost dumb to mention, but we touch our fingers to our face thousands of time a day. And the most common way we’ll get infected is someone coughs and the droplets land on the armrest and I put my hand there 10 minutes, an hour later without knowing you were sick and then I touch my nose and it gets into my mouth.”
In comparing the panic over the new Wuhan coronavirus strain, Dr. Oz further batted down concerns by comparing it to the common flu or influenza virus, which according to the CDC has claimed an estimated 12,000 to 61,000 lives annually since 2010.
“I don’t understand why we’re not more panicked about the regular old fashioned influenza virus,” he said. “SARS took 800 lives. So this virus is probably not going to be anywhere close to the magnitude of impact of the influenza virus and yet we’re panicked by it.”
The same push for a measured response to the outbreak was also issued by Harvard Medical School professor and Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, who applauded the decision by the World Health Organization to hold off on declaring a global health emergency.
“I think most of the concern is because it’s new and because there have been some deaths,” Kuritzkes told YFi PM last week. “I think everybody has to take a deep breath and just realize we’re always going to see new viruses coming out and we need to take this one step at a time.”
That said, it’s still early in the outbreak timeline to know everything about the new deadly strain of coronavirus with absolute certainty. Even models predicting transmissibility could change as new cases are reported. However, the transmissibility models that have been conducted so far, including one such study from the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, hint that the strain may be far less contagious than measles or other viruses that infect a far greater number of exposed individuals on average.
The measurement of viral contagiousness, known as R0 or R-naught, is the number that describes how many people a newly infected person is likely to pass a virus to. In the case of SARS, that number averaged about two to five new infections per exposed individual. The latest MRC measurement pegged the equivalent measure for coronavirus at about an average of 2.6, which pales in comparison to the measles, which on average was passed to about 12 or 16 new individuals.
According to Dr. Oz, until the number of cases start to show things getting drastically worse, the current observations would not indicate extreme concern.
“Until those numbers grow, they shouldn’t panic,” he said. “Because otherwise when the big one does hit and we’re gonna have one in our lifetime … we want to be prepared.”