What death frightens you the most? Drowning? Falling from a great height? Dying in a car crash? Or succumbing to a disease that kills less than 3% of those infected and has infected seven people in your country of 350,000,000?
The virus in question has been labeled by the Center for Disease Control as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV for short. The word “novel” in the name refers to the fact that it has not been previously identified. The Chinese government first reported the disease to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31. The first confirmed death occurred on Jan. 9.
On one side of the world, holiday celebrations are being canceled, politicians are offering to resign and entire cities are being quarantined. On the other side, airports are introducing new medical screening protocols, a total of five infections and no deaths have been confirmed, and Magers Health Clinic has run out of surgical masks freely available to students.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department released a statement on Jan. 29 saying there has been no transmission from travelers to others within the United States at this time. Individuals who have not traveled to Wuhan, China in the last two weeks are considered to be at little to no risk for this illness.
The Health Department’s notice also stated that over 550 flu-associated deaths occurred in the current flu season in Missouri alone.
To put the coronavirus’s death rate into perspective, a report from the National Bureau of Statistics of China states that 9.98 million Chinese died in total in 2019. This averages to 19 deaths every minute.
“This coronavirus is new, and there’s a lot that we don’t know about it,” Dr. Christopher Lupfer, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, said. Lupfer has a Ph.D. in genetics and has been with the university since 2015.
“There’s still much that we don’t understand,” Lupfer said. “In some ways the media is taking advantage of the fact that this coronavirus is new. It could spread and it could get a lot worse so we should watch it and monitor it, but right now it’s just the ‘new thing.’
“For example as of yesterday there are a little over 6,000 people who have confirmed cases of coronavirus.” Lupfer said. “But if the virus infects someone and they don’t very sick, they just have something like a cold, they’re probably not going to go to the doctor, in which case they’re not going to be tested.”
“In that situation there could be millions of people who just had mild cases of this virus, and we don’t know about them yet,” Lupfer said. “That kind of lack of information is really why we need to be careful, but not overly concerned yet.”
Vice President Mike Pence stated on Jan. 27 that the 20 airports in the U.S. that now require screenings for the virus account for 90% of all passengers from China. The screenings consist of asking travelers to fill out a questionnaire, taking their temperature with a non-contact thermometer and monitoring anyone that is openly displaying symptoms.
What can the government do if an infected individual attempts to enter the United States? According to Title 42 of the United States Public Health Service Act, the CDC has the authority to deny entry into the country or to detain, medically examine and conditionally release any persons suspected of carrying a communicable disease.
Aside from health concerns, the coronavirus may have serious political and economic ramifications.
Li Keqiang, the premier of China and effectively the second in command after President Xi Jinping, traveled to Wuhan on January 27 to personally oversee the containment efforts that have quarantined 17 cities and over 40 million people. This has been the largest quarantine in human history.
A comparable outbreak occurred in China in 2003 with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The World Health Organization reported that over a period of six months SARS infected 8,098 people in over a dozen countries and killed 774 of those infected. According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the outbreak ultimately cost the global economy $55 billion after adjusting for inflation.
United States’ Center for Disease Control provides updates on risk assessments, travel advisories, and sickness information The World Health Organization is the international authority on the matter with offices in 150 different countries. WHO has published daily situation reports since January 21, which can be found here.