On December the 31st, 2019, China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) to a cluster of cases of unusual pneumonia. Several of those infected had worked at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan and early reports suggested 40 people had the new illness. By the 7th of January, the virus had been identified as a novel type coronavirus and named 2019-nCoV, now referred to as COVID-19. The latest tally by the WHO (February 23rd) reports a total of 78 811 cases, 2462 deaths and a spread to 28 countries.
Draconian measures including whole city lockdowns which have curtailed the activities of an estimated 760 million people, appear to have slowed down the spread of the virus in China. But how worried should we be about the global impact of this virus, or more specifically its impact on the United States?
As of Saturday, U.S. cases had reached 34. Not very significant you might say in a country of over 327 million. But there are worrying facts about this virus, its origins, and its spread, that should make us concerned. Very concerned in fact.
Perhaps the most significant is China’s practice of punishing the messenger. The initial doctor who alerted people on social media in January to a mysterious viral disease (and who subsequently died from coronavirus) was curtailed by police and warned not to spread rumors. Local authorities hid the SARs outbreak in 2002 for more than a month and imprisoned the surgeon who sounded the alarm. Countless other records in China’s history report severe punishments for those who have threatened China’s dignity or broadcast embarrassing truths.
This probably means coronavirus was around for many months before the WHO was alerted on New Year’s Eve. Also, Wuhan was not put under quarantine until January 23rd. Perhaps a little too late it seems because 5 million people had already left.
Where did they all go? Well, maybe to a town near you. Because in the latest WHO reports, we are seeing cases of coronavirus popping up all over the world in people who have never been to China nor exposed (that they know of) to somebody who has recently returned from China. 28 cases in Iran, 1 in Canada, 1 in Egypt, 229 cases in South Korea, a large cluster centered around the Shingeongji religious group.
So far Egypt is the only African country where the virus has been reported. Africa is home to some of the world’s weakest systems for detecting, treating, and containing disease, and even health officials admit they are “Definitely not prepared” for coronavirus. But even without a case being reported so far, the economic impacts of the virus to Africa could be devastating, with significant exports, such as diamonds and copper, being sold to China.
But African countries won’t be the only ones affected. Last year, China surpassed the U.S as the engine driving the world’s economy. Already auto manufacturing plants are running short of parts, Chinese tourists are staying home, and revenues for companies such as Apple are sliding.
On a more positive note, most cases of coronavirus are mild, and influenza remains a more worrisome virus in the United States, with over 14, 000 deaths reported from the flu this season. Taking the same precautions as you would do to reduce your risk of contracting the flu, will help reduce your risk of catching coronavirus if there is ever an outbreak here.
But as long as coronavirus remains a bit of a wildcard, it remains a threat. Let’s hope an effective vaccine is available soon.
Photo credit NIAID-RML.