Since the first cases of a novel Coronavirus called 2019-nCoV were detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China a few weeks ago, the virus has spread around the globe. Luckily, transparency in China has improved since the SARS outbreak in 2003, and authorities at the World Health Organization (WHO) were notified in the early days of the epidemic. Since then, dramatic measures have been taken to stop the spread of the virus, but it has still infected around 10,000 people and caused 200 deaths. The virus is similar to SARS and MERS; they are all betacoronaviruses and originate in bats, though in this case, another animal probably acted as an intermediary, potentially snakes.
According to WHO, 99 percent of cases are currently in China, but there have been six reported cases in the United States, and isolated cases have popped up in about twenty countries worldwide, including Singapore, Vietnam, Australia, and the United Kingdom. By declaring a health emergency, WHO can provide advice about travel restrictions, help combat the spread of the virus, and review the public health procedures that are in place. It also can help bring the international community together to create a coordinated and effective response so that the virus can be contained.
The city of Wuhan is said to be a virtual ghost town right now; residents have been locked down in their homes, and the province of Hubei is effectively quarantined.
WHO has not suggested a travel ban, but United Air, Delta, and American Airlines have decided to stop all flights to China.
On Thursday, the Director-General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “there is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” while acknowledging that the virus has the potential to spread to countries that have weak health infrastructures that cannot deal with this type of viral outbreak.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has decided on a fourteen-day quarantine for 195 people that recently flew back from Wuhan. They are now residing at March Air Reserve Base in California. NPR reported that one individual tried to leave the base, and the order came down that none of them can leave for at least 72 hours. The State Department has also said that Americans should not travel to China right now.
"While we recognize this is an unprecedented action, we are facing an unprecedented public health threat," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC. "And this is one of the tools in our toolbox to mitigate the potential impact of this novel virus on the United States."
The United States saw its first case of a person transmitting the illness to another person, suggesting that these concerns are not unfounded. This outbreak is already outpacing SARS. The CDC said that since Thursday, global cases have risen by 26 percent, and the virus is spreading from person-to-person in other countries too.
"What has become clear," Messonnier said, "is that the magnitude and the scope of this epidemic in China is increasing." She cited an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that showed that people who are asymptomatic but are infected can spread the virus to uninfected people.
Messonnier also urged calm; people should not be getting face masks and should practice normal good hygiene habits. "We do not currently recommend the use of face masks for the general American public," she said. "This virus is not spreading in your communities."
Public health experts are advising that a travel ban will not be effective at stopping the virus from spreading, and may in fact hinder efforts to stop it. “From a public health perspective, there is limited effectiveness. And then there are a host of other reasons why they can actually be counterproductive,” said Catherine Worsnop, who studies international cooperation during global health emergencies at the University of Maryland.
Travel bans can stoke fear, disrupt the flow of medical supplies to affected areas, interfere with information sharing, and cause serious economic consequences.
“Adopting these restrictions undermines the cooperative approach we need to respond to this kind of outbreak, specifically by undermining the authority of the WHO, which has recommended against these restrictions,” Worsnop told STAT News.
According to scientists at Imperial College London, there were probably about 4,000 infected individuals in Wuhan by January 18. The city began a period of quarantine about a week later. The scientists' models have suggested that there may be as many as 100,000 cases by the end of the month. Experts also suggested that the cases may spike soon, potentially within two weeks, and begin to drop.