As an epidemiologist who has followed news of emerging viruses for 20 years, I’ve come to expect a few things during an outbreak of a disease like the new coronavirus that was first identified in the city of Wuhan, China. Namely: Fear, misinformation, and hype are always rampant in the early stages of an outbreak. That’s precisely what I’m seeing right now as news spreads about this new coronavirus. This fear already has real-world implications beyond contributing to misinformation about the illness—it’s also fueling racism and xenophobia against people of Asian descent. Getting the facts right is important.
On January 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations to avoid nonessential travel to China, and a few days later the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classified the new coronavirus as a public health emergency. Those are both unnerving developments, but this doesn’t necessarily mean you need to worry about coronavirus for your own personal safety (or that of your community). In an attempt to sort out fact from fiction and speculation from confirmed science, here’s what experts know so far—along with a reminder that, in the United States, at least, the flu is still a much bigger threat to our health than the new coronavirus.
Here’s what the new coronavirus actually is.
First, it’s important to know that there are actually many coronaviruses, according to the CDC. The one you’re seeing all over the news right now is formally known as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, because this is the first time experts have seen this new form of the virus. SARS is another coronavirus you’ve probably heard of before. Some coronaviruses can even cause the common cold, according to the CDC.
This new coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Transmission of many of the early cases was linked to a wet market (a place where items like seafood and live animals can be bought and sold), so it was initially thought that the virus likely originated from that market. Now it appears as though some people who picked up the new coronavirus may have been exposed elsewhere at an earlier point in time, the CDC explains.
In any case, the biological makeup of the new coronavirus looks most similar to bat coronaviruses, so the hypothesis is that bats (or possibly an intermediate species that got infected by bats) transmitted the illness to humans at some point in early winter.
The virus seems to be transmitted relatively easily between people in close proximity (within six feet) via respiratory droplets, though we don’t know yet whether casual contact (like sharing a few minutes in close quarters on a subway or bus) can spread the virus, or if more sustained contact (such as living with someone) is necessary.
The virus can cause symptoms similar to the flu, like fever, coughing, shortness of breath, and serious complications like pneumonia, the CDC says. Although not everyone shows symptoms, if someone does develop signs of the illness, it typically happens between 2 and 14 days after transmission. At this point, treatment comes down to addressing symptoms, as there are no specific antiviral medications for this new coronavirus (nor a vaccine).
One big unknown aspect of this illness is if someone needs to have symptoms to spread the virus, or if it can spread when someone is still in the incubation period (while the virus is replicating in their body, but they don’t yet feel sick).
In a January 31 press conference, Nancy Messionnier, M.D., the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said, “At this time, CDC does not have direct evidence that asymptomatic individuals are transmitting this virus.” Transmission during the incubation period didn’t seem to contribute to the spread of other serious human coronavirus infections like SARS, but with the new virus, we just don’t know yet. Only time will tell, and my infectious disease colleagues and I are anxiously monitoring the situation.
Clearly, experts are still working out a lot of these details. A lot remains to be known, including the actual impact the illness will ultimately have.
We don’t yet know how widespread or harmful the new coronavirus will be.
Before we go further, keep in mind that during an epidemic, the general public typically only hears about the most serious cases. It’s easy to overlook milder cases—involving people who report to their doctors and hospitals for treatment or simply stay home and recover—in favor of the more alarming stories. That’s not to say we shouldn’t care about the potential threat of serious illness and death in these situations, but that it’s also important to have the adequate context to avoid unnecessary fear.
With that said, the new coronavirus is currently spreading very quickly. At press time, more than 24,554 global cases of the illness have been confirmed, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), with 24,363 of those taking place in China. Very much worth noting: Only around 13% of the confirmed new coronavirus cases in China have been deemed severe, according to the WHO.
As people who contracted the new coronavirus in China have traveled, the virus has spread from China to at least 27 other countries and territories. In the United States, we currently have 11 confirmed cases of infection, in California, Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington. Most of these cases have been associated with people who had recently been in China, but on January 30 the CDC announced that the first U.S. case of person-to-person new coronavirus transmission had happened in Illinois. On February 2 another instance of U.S. person-to-person transmission was confirmed in California. Both cases of transmission happened when someone who had recently been to China spread the illness to someone they lived with in the U.S.
At press time, 492 people have died from complications of the illness (like pneumonia), with all but one of those deaths occurring in China (the only other death happened in the Philippines). Based on the number of confirmed cases, that’s a death rate of about 2%. (The fatality rate for the SARS outbreak in 2002 to 2003 was around 10%.) As the epidemic proceeds, many more people will become infected, with outcomes we can’t predict right now. In a January Issues in Science and Technology article, Harvard epidemiologist Maimuna S. Majumder expounded on that idea, explaining that determining the true fatality rate of an infectious disease is difficult and changes over time as more populations are involved and mild cases are identified, which can lead to a lower death rate overall.
Based on what we know about new coronavirus so far, older individuals are most at risk of contracting and dying from it. A January study in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at demographic information of the first 425 people confirmed to have the disease in Wuhan, finding that nearly half of the infections were in people 60 and older. A recent The Lancet analysis of the demographic and health information of 41 people hospitalized with the infection found that a third were above the age of 60, and many had preexisting conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Being older and having these kinds of conditions both tend to put people at higher risk of all types of respiratory infections, so it’s not surprising that these demographics would be the hardest-hit from this coronavirus as well. Interestingly, there have been very few reported cases of children and teens with the infection. This illness seems to be primarily striking (or at least causing noticeable symptoms in) adults, at least from current data.
Right now, the flu is a bigger threat in the U.S. than the new coronavirus.
We don’t yet know the trajectory of the new coronavirus, which understandably invokes fear. But don’t let all the buzz make you forget about a different virus circulating in the United States right now with a much larger impact than the new coronavirus. It’s killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people in this country between just October 1 and January 25, according to the CDC, and has caused up to 26 million illnesses and 310,000 hospitalizations in that time as well. Schools in several states have closed due to high levels of this illness in their student bodies. We even have a vaccine available to help prevent it. Yes, I’m talking about the flu.
Imagine if the new coronavirus had the same public health impact in the U.S. as the flu. People would (rightfully) be incredibly concerned. Because influenza is so familiar, many forget just how harmful and even deadly the flu can be—and how important it is to get vaccinated against it.
Many people see the new coronavirus as being worse than the flu because it has killed a higher percentage of infected people than the flu, which had a 0.1% mortality rate in 2018 to 2019 flu season and a .14% mortality rate in the previous flu season, according to preliminary CDC data. Although that’s lower than the current estimated mortality rate from the new coronavirus, those living in the United States are still at far greater risk of coming into contact with the flu than with the new coronavirus.
As I’ve written before, the influenza vaccine is not perfect. But even an imperfect flu vaccine can prevent millions of infections, reduce the risk of severe disease and intensive care admission, reduce the risk of death in children who are infected, and protect both mothers and their infants if the vaccine is given during pregnancy. According to the CDC, flu activity is high right now in most states and moderate in a handful of the rest. Protecting yourself (and others in your community who could be at risk if you carry the virus) is essential.
Luckily, many actions that will help prevent you from getting or spreading the flu can also help make coronavirus infection less likely should it become widespread in the United States. Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face and eyes, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, avoid close contact with people who are sick, and, if at all possible, stay home from school or work if you are ill. If you’re in contact with people who are confirmed to have either illness (or who are showing symptoms), or if you have symptoms yourself, consider wearing a face mask, the CDC says. It’s also not too late to get your influenza vaccine if you haven’t yet for the 2019 to 2020 season. Flu season typically lasts until late spring, so you still have time.
Fear and confusion can spread just like a virus. By taking simple steps to prevent the flu and understand the new coronavirus, you can work to minimize outbreaks of both infectious diseases as well as alarm and misinformation.
- Here Are All the Places You Can Get a Free Flu Vaccine Because It Is Time, Y’all
- We Never Got Flu Shots. Then the Flu Almost Killed My Husband
- No, the Flu Shot Is Not 100 Percent Effective. Yes, You Still Need It
Originally Appeared on SELF