There is a virus out there that is frequently mutating, can get us very sick with fever, fatigue, and open the door for other life-threatening infections, including pneumonia. It passes easily from one to the other by coughing and sneezing and touching. It has already infected close to 20 million people here in the USA and killed more than 8,000 since October. By the time the season is over, this virus will likely kill or enable the killing (from other diseases) of over half a million people worldwide.
The name of this virus is influenza, and we know it well, it has been around for centuries, even if it is constantly changing and providing new challenges. Still, the fact that we are used to hearing about it causes us to take it for granted.
There is another respiratory virus, from a category of viruses we also know but an entirely new and powerful strain. It is creating havoc on the other side of the world, leading to entire regions being cordoned off, which has caused more hysteria which spreads more virus as people try to escape the restrictions. This coronavirus has killed over a hundred people, probably much more, but it feels like a more imminent personal threat than it really is, because it is new, unknown, and we are hearing and thinking about it all the time.
We’re scared because we don’t know
Like the first virus, it is composed of a single strand of RNA (genetic material) that is not self-repairing and so frequently mutates. This is how we ended up with this novel strain of coronavirus that likely started off in mammals and is now spreading from one human to another. Yet we fear it much more than flu, because it is new and we don’t know enough about it yet, and as opposed to flu, we don’t have a treatment or a ready vaccine.
We need more answers to assuage our fears. How contagious is this virus? Can we get very sick and die from it, the way we already can from the flu? Is it really transmissible during the one to two week latency period after infection but before symptoms occur? The public health numerator is the number of cases and the denominator is the number of people at risk. So far, we know neither one with any certainty, and this scares us.
Our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the case. They are providing a light through the darkness, a contrast to China’s suppression and obfuscation followed by lockdowns and unprecedented massive citywide quarantines of over 50 million people.
Regional quarantines for emerging plagues can be effective, but they also restrict freedom and risk spreading more pathogen as panicked people struggle to escape them. Worried people take fewer precautions, which can lead to more spread. That’s especially true in a country where people live close together and the health care infrastructure is not ideal.
No secondary spread yet
On this side of the ocean, the CDC has quietly isolated and are monitoring over a hundred potential coronavirus patients, and has discovered five cases among recent travelers to Wuhan. Reassuringly, over 30 cases have tested negative, and so far there is no sustained or secondary spread yet from a patient who has the novel coronavirus to anyone else.
CDC is screening travelers from China at 20 airports and has issued a level 3 travel warning to all of China, advising only essential travel. I would advise no one travel to China right now unless absolutely necessary.
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The more time passes without secondary spread from one of the first five cases in America, the more confident we can feel that this is not a highly contagious virus. At the same time, if I am correct that there are many thousands of cases in China that were never reported, then the death rate from this coronavirus could be far lower than is feared. We frequently recognize the worst cases of an emerging pathogen the soonest. Patients with mild symptoms escape detection.
There have also been few reported cases of healthy young people dying from this virus, which is also reassuring.
Plus, a vaccine is in the offing. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, scientists are already working on a vaccine that will be tested in clinical trials over the next few months. “Bottom line is that there is a good chance that over time we will develop a vaccine for this virus,” he told me in a statement.
In the meantime, we worry. We fear the unknown and jump quickly to envisioning worst case scenarios. The emotional centers of our brain are too strong. When someone sneezes or coughs on us, we think coronavirus when we should still be thinking flu.
Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a clinical professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. Dr. Siegel is the author of several books on outbreaks, including “False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.” Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel