By Jay Kumar
As the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak moves into its third week, infectious disease experts believe it’s well on its way to becoming a pandemic. Extensive travel restrictions and quarantines have been put in place, but the coronavirus continues to spread quickly and has already surpassed the total number of cases from similar coronaviruses SARS and MERS.
As of February 4, the number of 2019-nCoV cases is estimated at 20,701, with 427 deaths and 727 patients considered recovered, according to a dashboard created by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Currently, there are 11 confirmed cases in the U.S. in Washington state, California, Arizona, Illinois, and Massachusetts; still, the CDC reports that there are people under investigation for the virus in 36 states. Some disease models predict the number of cases is actually closer to 100,000.
“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told the New York Times. “But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know.”
The effects of a pandemic, which is defined as an ongoing epidemic on two or more continents, could be felt around the world. Although scientists still don’t know how the disease spreads or how lethal it is, there’s no denying it spreads quickly from person to person. The Wuhan coronavirus has spread much quicker than SARS, which totaled more than 8,000 cases when it was wiped out in 2003, and MERS, which has had about 2,500 cases since it was first identified in 2012.
“Most often, spread from person-to-person happens among close contacts (about 6 feet),” according to the CDC. “Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. It’s currently unclear if a person can get 2019-nCoV by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”
One potential problem is the Wuhan coronavirus incubation period, which the CDC says may mean that symptoms appear in a patient in as few as two days or as long as 14 after exposure. Symptoms can include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But if there are no symptoms when a person infected with the Wuhan coronavirus is screened at a border, the disease may not be detected.
The biggest concern for some experts is the effects of a pandemic on poorer nations that don’t have strong healthcare systems. According to the Times, the virus could spread quickly in Africa, where more than 1 million Chinese expats work; additionally, many Africans work and study in China and other places where the virus has struck.