Americans face little risk from the deadly new coronavirus spreading across China and a vaccine could be ready for human testing within three months, the nation’s leading expert on infectious disease says.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, provided the upbeat message Wednesday as authorities in China suspended planes, trains and ferries in and out of three cities with a combined population of almost 20 million people.
Public transports also has been mostly suspended within Huanggang, Ezhou and Wuhan, the city of 11 million serving as the epicenter for the virus. More than 500 people in China have been diagnosed with the virus and at least 17 have died.
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A small number of cases have been diagnosed in other countries, including one case in Washington state. Airports in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Francisco have stepped up health checks for passengers arriving from China.
“We don’t want the American public to be worried about this because their risk is low,” Fauci said. “On the other hand, we are taking this very seriously and are dealing very closely with Chinese authorities.”
Fauci compared the outbreak with severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS, a coronavirus that killed more than 600 people across mainland China and Hong Kong along with more than 100 other people around the world in 2002-2003. Fauci said a vaccine was developed for SARS but was not needed.
“SARS essentially disappeared because of very good public health practices,” he said. “The question of developing a vaccine is not a major issue.”
The World Health Organization is expected to make an announcement Thursday afternoon on the outbreak and whether it constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.
Here is what we know about the new virus:
What is coronavirus? What are the symptoms?
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as pneumonia. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and death.
What is the threat to Americans?
Health officials said the virus, which likely spreads through tiny droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, is low risk. Officials urged people take the usual cold and flu season precaution: frequent hand washing, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing and staying home when you don’t feel well. “These illnesses can pop up anywhere,” said Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “This is a dynamic situation that can dramatically change from day to day.”
Other nations taking precautions?
Airports around the world have stepped up health screenings. Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel said all passengers arriving on direct flights from China will receive health screenings. Russian airports are screening passengers arriving from China. British authorities said passengers arriving from China to Heathrow Airport in London, Europe’s busiest, and other airports won’t get specials screening but will be given information leaflets on what to do if they fall ill.
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When, where did it come from?
Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Many of the initial cases were linked to a seafood and meat market in Wuhan. Chinese health officials, which first reported the cases last month, said human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.
World Health Organization to make announcement Thursday
The World Health Organization has established an emergency committee to advise Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on whether the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, or a PHEIC. A decision is expected Thursday. Declaring a PHEIC gives the WHO powers to issue recommendations to other countries aimed to stemming the spread of the outbreak.
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How is China grappling with the problem?
President Xi Jinping said curbing the outbreak and saving lives was a top priority. The timing of the outbreak could not be worse – the Lunar New Year is Saturday, and hundreds of millions of people across Asia travel in packed buses, trains and planes bound for celebrations. Beijing canceled its major New Year events and announced The Forbidden City, the palace complex now a museum, will close indefinitely on Saturday. Hong Kong has turned two holiday camps into quarantine areas for people who may have come into contact with the virus.
Contributing: The Associated Press