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Can the Wuhan Coronavirus Be Stopped?

As cases appear coast to coast in the U.S. and the first victim of the disease dies outside of China in the Philippines, we get an expert virologist's take on the deadly pathogen.
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Within just a few weeks, the Wuhan coronavirus has spread around the world, with cases now in some two dozen countries, including the United States where the illness has been found on states on both the coasts and in the Midwest. In China, where the virus appears to have originated, more than 300 deaths have been recorded from the virus as of this weekend. The first person has died from the respiratory illness outside of China, in the Philippines. By the end of Sunday, it’s likely that the number infected will top 15,000. More worrying, it's unclear the number of those who have officially recovered. Many nations have declared national emergencies, restricting travel from China and imposing quarantine policies.

With so many cases increasing so rapidly, and new information discovered nearly daily about the pathogen, hope of containing it any time soon appears to be slipping. While health officials say that risk to Americans is low, fear and anxiety is spreading with each new diagnosis, markets are getting the jitters, and the physical and psychological toll to the Chinese is real and damning.

We spoke with virology expert Ian Mackay, an adjunct assistant professor at School of Medicine at the University of Queensland in Australia. Mackay’s clinical virology research focus includes "virus hunting" -- discovering and characterizing viruses, especially those that infect the respiratory tracts of children, such as influenza viruses, coronaviruses and the picornaviruses. He has published and co-published many papers related to various diseases including on the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, dengue and measlesTheStreet interviewed Mackay over email over the past two weeks up through this weekend. Following is a lightly edited exchange to find his perspective on the new virus.

TheStreet: It appears that the Wuhan coronavirus is contagious before symptoms show up. I think a lot of people would feel that would make it nearly impossible to contain at this point, given that information and its current spread. Do you think this will be a virus that we'll have to live with unless a vaccine is created at some point?

Mackay: I do. While there is no good evidence to support asymptomatic transmission, we know that infectious viruses can be found without symptoms, for other viruses. It probably isn’t a major transmission route, though. So, unless we’re seeing something very different with this new coronavirus, people with coughs and sneezes and runny noses are more likely to be the major avenue for spread. If we do have milder disease due to the coronavirus – I expect we do – that will definitely make it harder to contain.

TheStreet: It seems unclear as to how deadly the virus is, as the numbers are always changing, but it's clearly somewhat deadly. How long do you think it will take to have enough data to determine how dangerous this virus is?

Mackay: We need to get a better idea of how many people are discharged from hospital and a better understanding of how many mild cases have been missed, while we focused on more severe disease. When we find that out will depend on China giving us more details, because that’s where most cases are, and so far, a decent number of cases outside of China have not seemed as severe.

TheStreet: The U.S. and other nations have recently decided to become much more strict on travel (from China). … Do you feel these steps would reasonably cut down on risk of spreading the virus?

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Mackay: Australia now, as well. They likely will cut down the risk. But they won’t remove it unless they account for indirect travel from other countries.

TheStreet: Do you have any concerns this global reaction to the virus could fuel anti-Chinese feelings globally and overshadow the grave situation many people in China are now dealing with?

Mackay: I do have many concerns over this. We have seen this in the tone and language used already. For some, this event is an excuse to lift the lid on their thinly veiled racism and air out their new and old conspiracy theories. For others, fear for themselves and their families will be the trigger. We have to look out for each other at times like this, not turn against one another. ...

TheStreet: Given what you know currently about the situation, how do you feel the world can reasonably expect this all to unfold over the next several months or years?

Mackay: We will be living with this virus for months to come, that much I feel confident in saying. Beyond that, it all depends on how a range of things unfolds. Could the virus take hold on other Chinese megacities and continue to spread from them? Countries without the resources to plow into surveillance and containment may see the virus take hold. Both of these outcomes will mean ongoing spread to other countries. 

How easily does the virus spread? How much contact and for long, is needed? And how long do people shed virus and from where? Apart from rapid vaccine development, we may also get some help form summer. Typically, endemic human coronaviruses tend to flare up in winter and die down in summer. Perhaps this new one will suffer in the northern summer season and give us a chance to get ahead of it for long enough to contain it.

TheStreet: Is there anything you would add?

Mackay: There is still much we don’t know, but we learn new things everyday.