Over the last 48 hours or so, the news has been rolling all this scary footage of people in medical masks and creepy little spiked blobs under microscopes. And so, now you’re thinking, Hmmm, I don’t feel so good myself. Considering all the rumpus for the new coronavirus originating from Wuhan, China, it’s pretty normal to ponder the possibility of contracting it.
But before you actually exert any serious thought on the subject, let me ask you a question: Can you even locate Wuhan on a map? If not, your odds of getting sick with this still-mysterious illness are essentially zero. And if you can, unless you’ve actually been to Wuhan in the last two months, you still have nothing to worry about.
I’m not just making this up to make you feel better, either: I contacted the CDC; Andres Romero, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica; and James Cherry, a distinguished research professor specializing in infectious diseases and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, to confirm.
The CDC directed me to their current reports on the virus. To summarize, this particular coronavirus (corona is Latin for crown, a reference to the virus’ spikes, which are visible under a microscope) is thought to have originated in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in China, in early December 2019. The virus is actually a strain of pneumonia, but one that hasn’t previously been seen. While it seems that the first cases were contracted through contact with animals (alive or dead) at Wuhan South China Seafood City, a meat market, it’s continued to spread following the market’s closure.
The CDC thinks it’s likely that the virus can be spread through human contact, but that hasn’t yet been proven. “Coronaviruses most commonly infect camels, bats and cats,” says Romero. “When humans are exposed, the virus mutates and changes. Right now, we don’t have the information to know where it’s coming from. It could be that it’s one of these animals, or another one.”
According to Romero, one possibility is that cats or bats developed the virus in the fish market, then spread it throughout the city. “What we know is that the people who have been infected with the virus seem to have a clear exposure in Wuhan in a specific fish market. All have that same epidemiological link,” he explains. “The single case in the U.S., and in Japan and Thailand all have been linked. Healthcare workers have been linked to having the infection, but it’s unclear if it’s human-to-human. Out of precaution, we should assume it is, but that hasn’t been completely proven. It’s important to be aware, and it’s important for healthcare workers to be able to identify it. But we don’t need to panic.”
How the Flu Spread
Since December, the illness has spread to cities throughout China, as well as neighboring countries. (On January 21st, the U.S. reported its first case from an individual who had recently returned to the state of Washington from Wuhan.) China has reported 17 deaths from the virus, and Wuhan has entirely shut down public transit. At the moment, though, the CDC is only citing a level two out of three risk for Wuhan, stating that those in the area should practice enhanced precautions.
As for the infection itself, the primary symptoms are fever and coughing or difficulty breathing, similar to other strains of pneumonia. So, if you have a cough but no fever, you just have a cold — go drink some Nyquil and chill out. Even if you do have a fever alongside the other symptoms, the CDC is currently only suggesting that healthcare professionals be concerned if the patient has recently been to Wuhan.
Of course, information about the virus is still developing, and now that a case has arrived in the U.S., anything could happen. But Cherry insists, “At the present time, there’s no risk.” Cherry believes it’s possible that this coronavirus will have the same impact as SARS, another coronavirus that originated in China in 2002 and ultimately killed more than 700 people globally. However, SARS was eventually contained and no cases have been reported since 2004. “SARS required very close contact to spread. With SARS, people with the virus were on airplanes for hours, and no one else on the airplane got sick,” says Cherry. “The degree of contagion for this is likely to be less; nevertheless, it’s clear from China that this can be spread from person-to-person.”
Unlike SARS or this new coronavirus (as we understand it thus far), both the cold and novel coronavirus can be spread many feet away from a sick person, or transmitted from touching surfaces a sick person has also touched, coughed or sneezed upon. For that reason, the flu is actually a much bigger threat to public health, in Cherry’s opinion. Case in point: In California alone, 105 people have already died from the flu this season.
It’s unclear if the same people most vulnerable to the flu (typically, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems) are similarly vulnerable to this virus. “If that information is known, it’s not out there yet,” says Cherry. “My guess is that with immunocompromised people, I’m sure it’s more severe, because every other respiratory virus is. [But] right now, people should be much more concerned about influenza. If they haven’t been immunized, they need to get their flu vaccination.”
At the current time, then, there’s nothing new for Americans to be afraid of. Considering that the flu has killed potentially one thousand times as many people since October as the new coronavirus has in total, perhaps focus your anxieties elsewhere.