In just two months, the Wuhan coronavirus, also known as the novel (as in new) coronavirus, has sickened tens of thousands of people across China, left more than a thousand dead, and spread to dozens of other countries, according to official and unofficial statistics compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
The novel coronavirus, which the World Health Organization has designated COVID-19, belongs to the same family of viruses as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both of which have led to deadly outbreaks in the recent past. Coronaviruses can cause respiratory infections, the effects of which range in severity from common cold-like symptoms to fatal respiratory illness.
Infectious disease experts do not yet know exactly how contagious or deadly the Wuhan coronavirus is. Compared to SARS and MERS, the Wuhan coronavirus has spread strikingly fast: While the MERS outbreak took about two and a half years to infect 1,000 people, and SARS took roughly four months, the novel coronavirus reached that figure in just 48 days.
However, current figures indicate that the Wuhan coronavirus is significantly less deadly than its relatives. Although the current outbreak has led to over 1,000 deaths—more than SARS—its fatality rate is around 2 percent; in comparison, the fatality rate for SARS was around 10 percent, and the rate for MERS was around 35 percent.
Experts believe that the Wuhan coronavirus is most contagious during its incubation period, which lasts up to two weeks. The virus can be transmitted between humans before symptoms appear, rendering detection and containment much more difficult.
Despite public fears that the coronavirus outbreak could scale into a full-blown pandemic, public health experts have called for patience until more details about the virus are known. “It is important to know how to distinguish between the advice and information coming from public health authorities and scientists, versus the misinformation that is instigating unnecessary fear,” says Lauren Gardner, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who is tracking the spread of the outbreak.
“It is important to know how to distinguish between the advice and information coming from public health authorities and scientists, versus the misinformation that is instigating unnecessary fear.”
That said, the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has been difficult to monitor, due to the delayed release of official statistics, and constantly changing travel restrictions. “It is especially challenging to collect good data at a fine spatial resolution, which is what most people want to know,” reports Gardner. “Without having travel data in real time that captures these altered mobility patterns, it is hard to assess what the geographic risk profile will look like moving forward.”
How the coronavirus spread
The coronavirus outbreak began in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province and the largest city in central China with a population of around 11 million.
Epidemiologists have traced the likely source of the outbreak to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in downtown Wuhan, where they believe the virus was initially transmitted from animals to humans.
On January 23, authorities placed Wuhan under quarantine, suspending all flights, trains, and long-haul buses into and out of the city. The World Health Organization commended the move, which was unprecedented in scale.
By the end of January, authorities had enforced transportation restrictions in an additional 15 cities in Hubei Province. Together, over 51 million people have been affected by the quarantines—more than the populations of Colombia or South Korea.
By the time the quarantine had been implemented there, an estimated 5 million people who were potentially exposed to the virus had already left Wuhan, complicating efforts to contain the virus.
On January 13, health officials in Thailand reported the first case of the novel coronavirus outside of mainland China. By the end of the January, the virus had been detected in more than 26 countries. Most patients had recently traveled from China.
The first fatality outside of China was reported in Philippines on February 1.
Containment and consequences
Public health officials in China and beyond have struggled to cope with the rapid spread of the virus. Facing a shortage of treatment facilities in Wuhan, government officials commissioned in late January the emergency construction of two new hospitals, which together provide an additional 2,600 beds. Construction teams finished the first hospital on February 2—just 10 days after breaking ground. The second facility received its first patients on Thursday, February 6.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has established quarantine stations and implemented enhanced passenger screening programs at several major international airports. The CDC is prepared to expand these measures to additional airports and ports of entry, if necessary.
However, U.S. health officials are quick to remind Americans that the virus poses relatively little threat at this time. Cases of influenza, more commonly known as the flu, currently dwarf the number of coronavirus cases by several orders of magnitude.
As the number of reported coronavirus cases continues to grow, repercussions have been felt across the world. On January 30, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, and the U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 travel advisory strongly discouraging Americans from entering China. Several countries, including the United States, have evacuated their citizens from China, and at least 50 international airlines have cancelled flights into and out of the country.
It may take months, if not years, for the full impact of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak to be known. But epidemiologists caution that this is likely not an isolated incident, and rather part of a growing trend. According to Gardner, there are a number of forces driving this pattern, including increased contact between humans and animals.
Gardner’s outlook is somewhat sobering: Outbreaks like this “should be expected to happen more frequently moving forward,” she says. In other words, it isn’t a question of if another outbreak will occur, but when.
For now, the best way to guard against the coronavirus is to commit to basic practices of daily hygiene. Washing your hands thoroughly and regularly, as well as avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, are preventative actions strongly recommended by the CDC. Sneezing into a tissue, coughing into your elbow, and staying home when you’re sick are also recommended to prevent the spread of any potential viruses.