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Courtesy of Yoo Jin Bae

January 31, 2020

History Repeating Itself: Spread of Coronavirus Causes Panic

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As the World Health Organization declared the spread of the coronavirus a “global health emergency,” more people on campus wore face masks to protect themselves from this disease.

As of Thursday evening, over 200 people have died and 9,800 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed. While there are currently six confirmed cases in the U.S., there are currently no known cases of the disease in New York state.

Cornell Health is collaborating with the Tompkins County Health Department to monitor the new strain of the coronavirus, but many students are still worried.

Coronaviruses were first described in the 1960s, and are named after the “crown” of sugary proteins that stick out of them. In humans, they largely spread through airborne fluid droplets from infected people. Most coronaviruses only cause bad cold-like symptoms, but the novel Wuhan strain is one of the few dangerous exceptions.

To quell these fears and control the spread of the disease, scientists across the world are hard at work investigating this epidemic and sharing their findings.

“We know the virus,” said Prof. Luis Schang, microbiology and immunology. “We know it came from a wild animal to humans in an interaction in a market. We know that many of the people infected so far came into direct or indirect contact with that market, but there are some cases where that was not the case.”

The transmission of the novel coronavirus from animals in a wet market in the Wuhan Province to humans is consistent with the beginning of other similar epidemics. Viruses from the coronavirus family have spread through human-animal contact, including SARS, which came from civet cats and MERS, which came from camels. As of now, the novel coronavirus seems to have some genetic similarity to SARS.

“Coronaviruses have a history of crossing the species barrier,” Schang told The Sun. “Many coronaviruses have been transmitted across species.”

The public health handling of the coronavirus reflects lessons learned from the steep human cost of the SARS epidemic, which killed over 770 people.

“[In comparison to SARS] there has been a much better flow of information,” Schang said. “There is a website managed by the city of Wuhan updated daily … As soon as the viruses were sequenced, the sequence was shared. It could be better, but it has been much more transparent,” he said.

While transparency of viral genome sequence data is better now than it was during the SARS epidemic, the Chinese government’s handling of the epidemic, including the decision to limit internal travel and quarantine millions of people, has not been without controversy.

Prof. Kim Overby, science and technology studies, specializes in medical ethics. Overby did not think that quarantines later in an outbreak are as effective when they are implemented earlier, and so she was unsure whether the benefits of quarantine are worth the costs.

“If a quarantine is unlikely to achieve its goal, the tradeoff with individual rights becomes much more problematic,” Overby wrote in an email to The Sun.

China is not the only country responding to the novel coronavirus with travel limitations: the U.S. State Department has recommended not traveling to China at this time, Italy cancelled all flights and Russia has partially closed its border with China.

Now that these choices have been made, Overby said the effects should be studied to better understand how to manage future epidemics.

“Efforts should be made to monitor and assess their [quarantines] effectiveness (as well as the burdens they impose) and that the policy should be re-evaluated based on this evolving, real-time data,” Overby continued.

As more is learned about the epidemic, there are a range of measures that governments and individuals can take to minimize their risk, including information for healthcare providers, dedicated hospital rooms, masks and hand washing.