Medical Examiner

How Worried Should You Be About the New Coronavirus? (Update: Still Not Time to Panic.)

Don’t panic about yourself. Do be concerned about global health.

People wearing protective masks while walking through a train station with suitcases
Travelers in Beijing taking a warranted precaution with face masks. Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images

The new coronavirus has infected almost 3,000 people and killed 82 (up from 900 infected, and 26 killed on Friday).* The recently-sequenced virus has spread from its point of origin, China, to Europe and the U.S., where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now confirmed five cases. Almost all of the cases are still concentrated in China, where prevention efforts have shut down Shanghai Disneyland, part of the Great Wall of China, and several McDonald’s. The New York Times calls it a “rapidly expanding outbreak” which has “fueled fears of a global pandemic.” So how worried should you be? We’ve sifted through the news and spoken with two researchers who have studied similar kinds of viruses, and an infectious disease doctor helping with prevention efforts, to find out.

Is it time to panic?

No. “The important thing to remember is that while there are a lot of cases, a lot of them are not severe,” says Tracey Goldstein, a professor in the department of pathology, immunology, and microbiology at the University of California, Davis. “I’m not worried right now about my personal risk.” If you’re going to be coming in contact with a lot of people, it’s prudent to wash your hands. But that’s mostly because we’re in the middle of flu season (and it’s a bad one).

But there are still concerns, right?

“I think that our first concern can rightly be the people in China,” says Columbia epidemiologist Simon Anthony. Both because of the virus, and because of the vigorous response, which is a hassle even if warranted: China has shut down outbound travel from Wuhan, where the virus originated. Wuhan resident Yasin Gaardo has been posting videos to Twitter, of police blocking a road, and of a supermarket running out of vegetables. “Public transportation is locked up…90 percent of Wuhan people are staying inside,” he told CNN. “I can say I’m worried but I’m not in panic mode right now.” Perhaps as you should be.

The alarming part might be the speed at which the virus is spreading. The rapid pace is part of why it keeps making news—it’s an important global health story, even if most individuals are not personally at risk—and the constant news fuels the feeling of panic. “I’m certainly more concerned now than I was a week ago,” says Anthony, noting that the respiratory nature of the virus makes it relatively easy to spread from human to human. There’s also, he says, the fact that it “brings back memories from SARS,” Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

How are coronavirus patients being treated?

Hospitals have a checklist of things they look for in patients, says Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health. But it’s hard—impossible—to diagnose on symptoms alone, since the symptoms are the same as other similar viruses. What matters most is if patients have recently traveled to an affected area, or come in contact with someone who has. If the new coronavirus is a possibility, the patient will be isolated, and a nasal swab can be used to run a test to look for the new viruses genome (in the States, the swabs are sent to the CDC for this testing). There’s no antiviral treatment for the new coronavirus, so treatment involves isolating patients, and caring for them through any of the more severe symptoms that arise in about a quarter of the cases.

In Wuhan China, hospitals are extremely overburdened by the influx of patients, reports Sui-Lee Wee in the New York Times. One resident with a chest infection wasn’t tested for the virus at the first hospital he went to, and then, after he went home in the symptoms worsened, was turned away from three more for lack of beds. In the U.S., protocol to handle the virus is still somewhat hypothetical; just over 100 people have been tested according to the CDC, and only five of them have been positive. So far doctors like Blumberg have mostly been dealing with coronavirus by educating people on the basics. “I’ve been responding to a lot of press inquiries,” says Blumberg.

So how does this relate to SARS?

SARS also spreads via the air, through coughing, and traveled around the globe causing panic. And though SARS was more severe, both are coronaviruses. A coronavirus is a kind of virus with a spiky crown-like exterior that affects the respiratory tracts and guts in mammals. There are more than 3,000 species of coronavirus, but they are most commonly found in bats, as Goldstein and Anthony describe in a study in which they tested everything from humans to shrews. Just seven species (with the addition of this new virus) are known to affect humans. One of those is actually the cause of the common cold, to which the symptoms of coronavirus in many cases are similar, though complications of this new one can include pneumonia and sepsis. Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), of which there was an outbreak in 2012, is another coronavirus. The new virus does not appear to be as deadly as MERS (34 percent mortality rate), or SARS (10 percent)—its death rate is 4 percent.

Why doesn’t the new coronavirus have a catchy name like MERS or SARS?

Technically speaking, its name is 2019-nCoV, short for “2019 Novel Coronavirus.” Colloquially it’s going by a few things including “Wuhan coronavirus.” But as Helen Branswell points out in a piece for Stat News, the World Health Organization frowns on labeling diseases after a place or region. It’s stigmatizing. It also doesn’t really point out anything helpful about the virus.

Sure, but, why did it originate in Wuhan? Is that random?

Sort of! “There’s quite a few things that need to align,” says Goldstein, for a virus like this to make the jump to humans. Not only do humans need to come into contact with a bat (or snake), or other animal that the bat/snake has come into contact with, but the machinery of the particular species of virus needs to be able to infect humans. This coronavirus seems to have originated at a market with animal meat.

OK, SARS, MERs, now this. Are these kinds of outbreaks becoming more frequent? And should we worry about that?

It does seem like there’s been an uptick. There are two reasons for that, explains Goldstein. It might be that we’re just better at detecting and tracking the spread of viruses. But also, we’re moving around more—flying and interacting with more species—says Goldstein. “The thing that definitely has changed is we are such a global world now.”

*This post was updated on January 27 with new information.