The Wuhan Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses SARS

Daisy Hernandez
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From Popular Mechanics

  • Delta and American Airlines will cease service to China through March 27 and April 30, respectively.
  • The coronavirus is named after its crown-like shape—corona being Latin for 'crown'—and has killed at least 1,000 people and infected thousands more. The coronavirus death toll has now surpassed SARS figure which stood at 774.
  • The virus has officially been named Covid-19.

⚠️This post is updating with the latest information as it becomes available.

A new strain of coronavirus has the World Health Organization (WHO) and medical officials worried. It's known as Covid-19, or more commonly as the Wuhan coronavirus, named after Wuhan City, China—the virus's epicenter. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO, convened the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on January 30 and announced that the coronavirus is officially a global health emergency.

Ghebreyesus cited the reasoning for the declaration not only being what's “happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries.” He added that the declaration was most certainly “not a vote of no confidence in China.”

According to new research, the virus can spread via saliva, urine, and stool. The Washington Post reports that Covid-19 usually takes around “three days from the time of infection for symptoms to manifest.”

On January 31, Delta and American Airlines both announced that they would be stopping service to China. American is ceasing all flights to mainland China immediately through March 27 and Delta will halt flights from February 6 through April 30.

On January 30, the first U.S. case of human-to-human transmission in Chicago. Health officials reporting that the most recent patient is the spouse of a woman who had recently flown back from Wuhan.

Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who had reportedly tried to warn colleagues and friends about the health risks associated with the coronavirus, died after contracting the disease on February 6. According to The Washington Post, Wenliang was detained by Chinese police for “rumor-mongering” on January 1, subsequently fell ill, and passed at Wuhan Central Hospital.

Additionally, several passengers have been quarantined aboard cruise ships as the coronavirus continues spreading. More than 60 people aboard the Diamond Princess cruiser—which remains docked in Japan—have tested positive for the virus.

Popular Mechanics reached out to Vineet Menachery, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch—Galveston, to talk about the Wuhan virus: what it is, why it's spreading, and what you can do to stay safe.

What Is a Coronavirus?

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The Covid-19 virus actually belongs to a family of coronaviruses (CoV), which include Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). According to the World Health Organization, CoVs can afflict you with something as mild as the common cold or something as deadly as SARS. The virus affecting people now is what’s called a novel coronavirus (nCoV) because it's the first time this particular strain is being seen in humans.

“Before 2002, [the coronavirus] was associated with the common cold in humans,” Menachery tells Popular Mechanics. "In animals, it was associated with severe and often deadly enteric disease mostly in pigs, cats, and other mammals.”

“In 2002, the emergence of SARS-CoV changed that opinion as it caused a severe respiratory disease that spread across the world. SARS-CoV was traced backed to civet cats and raccoon dogs sold in live markets in China. The culling of these market and strict quarantine ended the outbreak,” he adds.

How Does a Coronavirus Spread?

CoV’s are zoonotic viruses, meaning that they can be transmitted between animals and humans. In fact, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV both reached humans by way of dromedary camels and civets, respectively.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the person-to-person contagion event could be due to “respiratory droplets” exchanged between people in close proximity, but this remains “unclear.”

"Sneezing, coughing, and other close contact likely drives infection,” Menachery says, especially if particles aerosolize during the removal of medical equipment, i.e.: intubation, extubation, during treatment. He notes that this was likely one of the contributing factors that helped the spread of the SARS virus.

Menachery also says that the spread of Covid-19 is possible, but does not appear to be an issue as of yet “based on the exported cases to date.” That is unless Covid-19 infects super spreaders.

“Super spreaders are individuals who amplify transmission...this means these people spread it to double digit people on average,” Menachery says. “We do not know why super spreading occurs, but we know the virus is not specifically different from super spreaders.”

On January 29, Finland became the latest country to confirm its first case of Covid-19. A 32-year-old woman flew in from Wuhan on January 23 and presented with symptoms three days later. An ER visit confirmed she was carrying the virus. She will remain under quarantine and be monitored for two weeks by health officials.

How Did Covid-19 Get to the U.S.?

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On New Year’s Eve, the WHO was alerted about several people from Wuhan who were presenting with pneumonia but with no known cause.

Then, between December 31, 2019, and January 3, 2020, 44 cases of people with pneumonia—again, with unknown origin or cause—were reported to the WHO. By January 11, China’s National Health Commission had shared additional details with the WHO that pinned the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak to a seafood market in Wuhan. Additional events include:

  • January 12: China makes the genetic sequence of Covid-19 available for countries to create their own diagnostic kits.
  • January 13: Thailand reports its first lab-confirmed case of Covid-19, imported from Wuhan.
  • January 15: Japan reports their first lab-confirmed case of Covid-19, imported from Wuhan.
  • January 20: Korea reports their first case of Covid-19, imported from Wuhan.

According to a Situation Report from the WHO, there have been 282 confirmed cases of Covid-19 across four countries (China, Thailand, Japan, Korea) with 51 cases of severely ill people who are presenting with at least one of the following: dyspnea, a respiratory rate of 30+ bpm, hypoxemia, or chest x-rays showing multi-lobar or pulmonary infiltrates that are progressing rapidly (“more than 50 percent within 24-48 hours”).

The first case of Covid-19 in the U.S. was announced on January 21, 2020, in Washington state. A man who had recently traveled through Wuhan came back to the U.S. and presented with symptoms of the new coronavirus. A specimen was taken from the patient and overnighted to the CDC where it was confirmed that the man had Covid-19 using a Real time Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (rRT-PCR) test.

NPR reports that the man is currently quarantined at Providence Regional Medical Center and is otherwise in good health. Additionally, 12 people are in critical condition worldwide, presenting with either respiratory failure, septic shock, and/or some form of organ failure requiring ICU admission.

On January 24, the first possible case of Covid-19 was announced at Texas A&M University, where a student was being monitored after presenting with symptoms of the virus. In a news release, the university said that the “immediate health risk to the campus community” was “low.”

As January 27, there were five confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. with California and Arizona being the latest states to confirm as much. In the U.S., an additional 73 individuals are being tested for Covid-19. Their results are pending.

On January 29, a plane evacuating American citizens who had been living in or near Wuhan, landed at March Air Reserve Base in California. Everyone on board underwent multiple health screenings—in China, before boarding and again in Alaska, where the plane stopped for fuel—and passed.

The group will be held in isolation to be monitored for Covid-19 for a period of time before being able to go home.

What Safety Measures are Governments Taking?

The CDC reports that it has created a test to diagnose Covid-19 and is working with international health organizations and governments to administer the test in hopes of catching symptoms early on.

“The main goal of the government will be to limit spread of the virus and find its source. In China, front line workers in the healthcare system are wearing proper protective equipment to prevent their infection," Menachery says. "Patients are being held in isolation wards to prevent spread.”

The city of Wuhan has also been placed under isolation and various forms of public transportation have been brought to a halt. In an effort to stop Covid-19 in its tracks, China has also extended the quarantine to the cities of Huanggang and Ezhou. This unprecedented move cuts an estimated 19 million people off from the rest of the world.

Airports across the U.S. began conducting additional health screenings on people flying in from China and the CDC stationed several employees at these airports.

Is There a Cure?

Currently, there is no cure or vaccine for Covid-19. However, now that the virus has been sequenced, chances of effective treatments—including the possibility of a vaccine—are more likely.

“There are no approved vaccines or therapeutics for any of the respiratory coronaviruses,” Menachery says, but adds that some studies preparing to enter the human trials phase “would likely be effective against this novel virus.”

Treatment for Covid-19 could see doctors prescribing remdesivir—an antiviral drug—which has shown “efficacy against CoVs early after the start of infection and has had success against Ebola,” Menachery says.

Scientists are working at “breakneck” speed to create a vaccine that'll stop the virus which has already killed 106 people in China. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) announced that they would split $12.5 million between three companies—Moderna, Inovia, and the University of Queensland, Australia—to fund Covid-19 vaccine research. Scientists are hoping to be ready for human tests “16 weeks from now.”

How Can I Protect Myself?

“The public in the United States should be aware, but not yet worried,” Menachery says. He adds that most of the people at risk of developing severe Covid-19 complications are those who are elderly, live with chronic conditions such as diabetes, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and heart disease.

Also according to the WHO, there are some simple preventive measures you can take to protect yourself from this strain:

  • Regularly washing your hands and using alcohol-based sanitizers
  • Covering your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze
  • Utilizing face masks when in crowded areas
  • Avoid consuming raw or undercooked animal products such as milk, meat, and eggs
  • Avoid close contact with people exhibiting symptoms such as fevers, coughs, sneezing, and difficulty breathing
  • If you present with any of these symptoms, visit your medical provider immediately and share your recent travel history with them
  • Avoiding contact with live animals in areas where there have been cases of Covid-19

The CDC, WHO, and several other governments and organizations are working around the clock to pinpoint what caused the outbreak of Covid-19 in the first place, contain, and eradicate it. If you present with any of the symptoms visit your healthcare provider immediately.

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