The Wuhan coronavirus spreading from China is now likely to become a pandemic that circles the globe, according to many of the world’s leading infectious disease experts.
The prospect is daunting. A pandemic — an ongoing epidemic on two or more continents — may well have global consequences, despite the extraordinary travel restrictions and quarantines now imposed by China and other countries, including the United States.
Scientists do not yet know how lethal the new coronavirus is, however, so there is uncertainty about how much damage a pandemic might cause. But there is growing consensus that the pathogen is readily transmitted between humans.
The Wuhan coronavirus is spreading more like influenza, which is highly transmissible, than like its slow-moving viral cousins, SARS and MERS, scientists have found.
“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know.”
It is “increasingly unlikely that the virus can be contained,” said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now runs Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit devoted to fighting epidemics. “It is therefore likely that it will spread, as flu and other organisms do, but we still don’t know how far, wide or deadly it will be.”
One of the biggest questions about this new virus is how lethal it will be:
The biggest uncertainty now, experts said, is how many people around the world will die. SARS killed about 10 percent of those who got it, and MERS now kills about one of three.
The 1918 “Spanish flu” killed only about 2.5 percent of its victims — but because it infected so many people and medical care was much cruder then, 20 to 50 million died.
By contrast, the highly transmissible H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic of 2009 killed about 285,000, fewer than seasonal flu normally does, and had a relatively low fatality rate, estimated at .02 percent.
The mortality rate for known cases of the Wuhan coronavirus has been running about 2 percent, although that is likely to drop as more tests are done and more mild cases are found.
An accurate estimate of the virus’s lethality will not be possible until certain kinds of studies can be done: blood tests to see how many people have antibodies, household studies to learn how often it infects family members, and genetic sequencing to determine whether some strains are more dangerous than others.
Closing borders to highly infectious pathogens never succeeds completely, experts said, because all frontiers are somewhat porous. Nonetheless, closings and rigorous screening may slow the spread, which will buy time for the development of drug treatments and vaccines.
Other important unknowns include who is most at risk, whether coughing or contaminated surfaces are more likely to transmit the virus, how fast the virus can mutate and whether it will fade out when the weather warms.
However, it would appear that some doctors are having some success in treating severe cases of illness caused by the Wuhan coronavirus. Reuters reports that Thai doctors have had some success in treating patients infected with 2019-nCoV using a combination of HIV and influenza drugs:
Thai doctors have seen success in treating severe cases of the new coronavirus with combination of medications for flu and HIV, with initial results showing vast improvement 48 hours after applying the treatment, they said on Sunday.
The drug treatment includes a mixture of anti-HIV drugs lopinavir and ritonavir, in combination with flu drug oseltamivir in large doses.
The New York Times article I cited earlier says:
In China, several antiviral drugs are being prescribed. A common combination is pills containing lopinavir and ritonavir with infusions of interferon, a signaling protein that wakes up the immune system.
In the United States, the combination is sold as Kaletra by AbbVie for H.I.V. therapy, and it is relatively expensive. In India, a dozen generic makers produce the drugs at rock-bottom prices for use against H.I.V. in Africa, and their products are W.H.O.-approved.
Another option may be an experimental drug, remdesivir, on which the patent is held by Gilead. The drug has not yet been approved for use against any disease. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that it works against coronaviruses, and Gilead has donated doses to China.
Of course, it is still early days, and a great deal more testing and research needs to be done.
Good Sources of Information on 2019-nCoV
Here is my list of good, credible, authoritative resources to learn more about the Wuhan coronoavirus (more formally known as 2019-nCoV):
- the United Nations World Health Organization
- the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Personal Health Preparedness information from the U.S. CDC
- Health Canada, including an FAQ and a fact sheet
- Public Health Canada
- Information for the Public from the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England (U.K.)
- Public Health Ontario (Canada)
- Coronavirus Information for the Public (British Columbia Centre for Disease Control; see also this series of tweets)
- University of Chicago Medicine
- 2019-2020 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak (Wikipedia)
- Dr. Roger Seheult is posting short videos to his YouTube channel, explaining the medical concepts behind the Wuhan coronavirus in an easy-to-understand way
If you want a quick, up-to-date overview of the current situation, here are three good places to check:
- 2019-nCoV Global Cases (by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University)
- Tracking coronavirus: Map, Data and Timeline by BNO News
- the Wikipedia article on the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is constantly updated by an army of volunteer editors, and provides a good overall summary of the situation
Sources of Fast-Breaking News on 2019-nCoV (WARNING: News You Read Here May Not Be 100% Credible!)
PLEASE READ: In addition to the sources listed in the previous section, there are other places you can check, which might have reports (including translated links to local social media in China) that have not yet made the mainstream news media. Please keep in mind that the situation in China is chaotic, and that some of the information you find in the sources I list below might be gossip, rumours, hoaxes, conspiracy theories, misinformation, or disinformation!
Please review the information and videos I posted in my blogpost about How to Spot Fake News, BEFORE using any of these links.
- The FluTrackers.com discussion forum (please note that it can be difficult to wade through all this information, as it is split up into threads by geographic area)
- The China_Flu subReddit and wiki with FAQ
- The Intelliwatch Discord server (invite link) is a geopolitical events and crises discussion forum that has three channels devoted to 2019-nCoV/Wuhan coronavirus news, rumours, and speculation.
- The Corona Virus (2019-nCoV) Discord server (invite link)
- If you want a credible list of people to follow on Twitter, epidemiologist Dr. Ellie Murray has compiled a curated list of coronavirus experts that you can subscribe to.