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Health experts warn coronavirus could be the 'Hurricane Sandy of epidemics'

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South Korean soldiers wearing protective gear walk to spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, March 3, 2020. China's coronavirus caseload continued to wane Tuesday even as the epidemic took a firmer hold beyond Asia. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Infectious disease experts working on the coronavirus, or COVID-19, warn that the outbreak could have a historically unprecedented impact on life across the globe. "This is potentially a very significant event, the Hurricane Sandy of epidemics," Dr. Bryan Lewis, a professor at the Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia, told AccuWeather, invoking the superstorm that ravaged parts of the East Coast in 2012.

"This pathogen has all the signs of being ‘the big one,'" said Lewis, who is among those at the Biocomplexity Institute who works in a research partnership with AccuWeather. "When current estimates for COVID-19 are compared to the 1918 pandemic, they are eerily similar. The outcomes will likely be different given modern medicine; however, the impact on society and its functioning is likely to be significant."

The 1918 influenza pandemic, sometimes called the Spanish Flu pandemic, is the most severe pandemic in recent history. An estimated 500 million people - or one-third of the world's population - became infected and the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with roughly 675,000 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The spread of this virus is really, really surprising," Dr. Danielle Anderson, scientific director of the Duke-NUS Medical School ABSL3 laboratory, told NBC in an interview last week. "It seems that it's extremely contagious; it's not airborne, but it is contagious."

Some may feel the coronavirus is overhyped; however, COVID-19 already has caused at least 3,100 total deaths around the world with more than 92,000 total confirmed cases of the illness in more than 75 countries or regions as of March 3. Of those confirmed cases, more than half have recovered (48,190); the death rate has been 3.3 percent.

For comparison, there have been at least 32 million flu illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations and 18,000 deaths in the U.S. this season, according to the CDC.

"[COVID-19] is a unique virus with unique features," said World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "We are in unchartered territory."

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The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 makes it hard to predict what will happen next.

"If this virus behaves like others and peaks sometime in the next 60 days, that will give us time to work on vaccines and treatment because it will not likely return until next October and November," said AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers.

"On the other hand, if this virus is different from all the others and the sunlight, heat and humidity are not its natural enemy, then the threat to the health and welfare of humanity as well as the negative impact on the economy has the potential to be severe. I would estimate that chance to be less than five percent and perhaps minuscule. But until we see how the virus reacts to sunlight, heat and humidity increases over the next few months, we will not know for sure."

The role of weather is being investigated, according to Dr. Madhav Marathe at the Biocomplexity Institute. "But in general, COVID-19 seems to be a bit more resilient to weather changes than the flu. Its spread in warmer regions is evidence," Marathe told AccuWeather. "Even so, peak summer and low humidity will affect the spread as with other coronaviruses, but this needs to be studied scientifically much more rigorously."

Lewis adds about weather's role, "We have conflicting evidence at the moment; what I would say is we can't count on high humidity to ‘save us.' Even if it does, it will buy us valuable time, but COVID-19 will most likely return once the humidity drops in the fall."

Efforts taken by China, where COVID-19 originated, revealed another unique aspect to the virus: it can be contained.

"We have never before seen a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but which can also be contained with the right measures," WHO's Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "Containment of COVID-19 is feasible and must remain the top priority for all countries. With early, aggressive measures, countries can stop transmission and save lives."

For the latest updates on the outbreak, click here for a daily coronavirus briefing.

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