Is it time to panic yet? Has the outbreak of the Corona Virus, aka COVID-19 (the “virus”), reached the pandemic stage?
Based upon my research for this blog, I would say the answers are: “No” and “probably not yet,” but I can see why some might disagree. The World Health Organization (“WHO”) has issued a statement that “while it still too early to call it a pandemic countries should nonetheless be in a ‘phase of preparedness.’ ” That said, it is important to note that the situation has been very fluid, and by the time you read this it may have deteriorated to the point where the above answers may have changed.
With respect to the virus please be advised of the following information, which I have gleaned from various sources, such as Wikipedia and various news outlets, such as TV reports and “The Washington Post.”:
1. The WHO and other health agencies have complained that much of the information about COVID-19, particularly that which has been available on the internet, has been incomplete, contradictory and infodemic (so excessive as to be confusing and counterproductive). For example, the virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, possibly at the Huanan Seafood Market, in December, although there have been reports disputing that market as being the source. There has also been speculation that (a) the virus originally leaked from a lab in Wuhan that was conducting experiments in biological warfare, and (b) infected lab animals were smuggled out of the research facility and sold for human consumption.
2. The number of people infected has been increasing at an alarmingly rapid pace and spreading geographically. As I write this, over 82,000 cases have been confirmed in some 50 countries, resulting in over 2,800 fatalities. Furthermore, on February 25 for the first time the number of new cases reported outside China exceeded the number inside China.
3. On the plus side, over 32,000 of those infected have recovered. To date, after China, the highest incidences of infection have been in South Korea, Italy, Iran, and Japan. Officials of each of those governments have been severely criticized for their ineffective and/or slow actions to control the outbreak of the virus.
4. As one might expect, most of the deaths were patients who were (a) over 60 and (b) had pre-existing conditions, especially respiratory, cardiovascular or diabetes.
5. The number of those infected has been consistently underreported, substantially so in some countries. This could have been due to health officials being slow to recognize the symptoms of the virus (which mimic the flu or pneumonia). However, some people, notably the WHO’s John Mackenzie and the CDC’s Anne Schuchat, have speculated that, at least in the case of China, there was a deliberate attempt to minimize the situation, possibly, for economic and tourism reasons.
6. The common early symptoms are fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue and myalgia (muscle pain). If untreated, these can lead to acute respiratory distress, severe pneumonia, sepsis, and, ultimately, death.
7. The incubation period varies, but most put the outer limit at 14 days. This presents obvious problems as far as identifying those afflicted before they can spread the disease.
8. The primary means of transmission is via respiratory droplets, e.g. coughing and sneezing on someone. It has been estimated that the average sick person is likely to infect two to four others.
9. So far, there is no effective vaccine to treat or prevent the virus, although several health agencies have been working feverishly to produce one. The National Institute of Health has reported that it expects to have one ready for human trials as early as April.
10. As a means of mitigating the spread of the virus public health officials urge people to observe basic hygiene, such as frequent handwashing (for 20 seconds or more), avoiding touching one’s face and mouth, and avoiding being to close to anyone who is coughing or sneezing. Avoid touching objects, such as door knobs or railings. The virus can survive on those types of objects for up to nine days. The use of face masks for those not infected is not recommended, except for caregivers, as there is no evidence that they protect one against infection. On the other hand, a mask might give one a false sense of security. Anyone infected is urged to stay at home as much as practicable.
11. Furthermore, various countries have instituted travel restrictions or bans to infected areas and quarantines of those infected. Airports, train stations and other points of entry have stepped up their vigilance of arriving travelers. In addition, many have closed schools temporarily and postponed or cancelled group gatherings such as sporting events and concerts. There has even been discussion of holding sporting events in empty stadiums.
12. The US instituted a Level 1 travel watch, which it later upgraded to Level 3 for some areas. As I write this, the US has had only 60 confirmed cases and no deaths. That makes sense, as I would expect proportionally fewer deaths in countries, such as the US which have a strong health infrastructure.
President Trump has been criticized by his political enemies, unfairly, in my opinion, for the manner in which he has handled this matter. In a recent press conference he was upbeat and positive. He urged people to “remain calm,” and he characterized the US’s containment of the virus as “close to airtight.” He was criticized for those comments by some people. It’s almost as if they would rather there be more deaths if it were to mean a failure for Mr. Trump. I find that bothersome. I believe that in a time of crisis such as this we should put aside political differences and support the president.
As stated above, I believe the outbreak has not yet reached the “pandemic” stage. Although much of the world’s health agencies were slow to react to the danger, it now appears that they are fully engaged. Also, although the virus has spread rapidly the death rate has been very low, around 3%.
In addition to the abovementioned health hazards there has been and will be a strong economic impact from this virus. China is a significant trading partner of not only the US but also many other nations. The inevitable disruptions to its economy will have a significant impact on the economies of the rest of the world.
The financial markets have already reacted to this, perhaps overreacted. When President Trump urged people to “remain calm” he was referring to investors as well.
In a macro view, I would like to point out that the world has survived many pandemics thrughout recorded history. Many of you will recall the SARs outbreak of 2003 and the Asian Flu of 1956-58. In addition, historians will recall the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the Black Death of 1346 – 1353. Those were scary as this now appears to be, but I believe we will survive.