Wuhan Virus Infections Explode in China, 5 U.S. Cases Confirmed, at Least 80 Dead

In just seven days, the official number of diagnosed cases has gone from around 200 to 2,100, as questions about the dangers of the mysterious illness - and its human and economic tolls - swirl.

Just one week ago Sunday, the official number of diagnosed cases of the mysterious respiratory virus believed to originate from central China was about 62. Then by later that day, the number appeared to be around 200. 

Seven days later, the official number of cases has risen to the thousands. The number of cases reported in the U.S. -- where there were none a week earlier --has risen to five and 22 states had possible cases as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 10 nations including France, Canada, Australia and Taiwan are also now seeing infections pop up. So far at least 80 patients in China have already lost their lives and more than 2,400 are diagnosed with the disease that appears to have started in Wuhan -- a city of 11 million, according to the South China Morning Post's latest figures.

Now doctors, scientists, economists and others are scrambling to get a handle on the potential damages of the virus that's causing sickness -- and fear -- throughout Asia and beyond.

"It is certainly spreading," said virology expert Ian Mackay at the School of Medicine at the University of Queensland in Australia in a email exchange with TheStreet over the weekend. "Given that we started in a highly populated city, it probably isn’t surprising that we are seeing these numbers rise quickly. I expect we are now missing a large number as well, which isn’t surprising."

Labs that can test for the newly discovered virus -- known as a coronavirus -- will likely be overwhelmed with requests from patients, as the flu is also widely circulating, making diagnosing new infections more difficult, said Mackay, an associate professor at the university. 

One of the main fears of the new Chinese coronavirus is it can cause deadly pneumonia, but can have symptoms that appear similar to other common respiratory illnesses, too.

Despite massive efforts by the Chinese government to contain the spread of the disease through quarantine and other travel restrictions, new cases of the virus have already expanded widely throughout the nation, according to a disease-mapping project by The Center for Systems Science and Engineering, a research collective housed within the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Further complicating efforts to fight the disease, Chinese National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei on Sunday reportedly said it appears as if the virus can infect others before a person shows any symptoms, and that its incubation period can last as long as two weeks. This means someone could potentially get infected and spread the illness without knowing it for 14 days before ever developing the signs of the illness such as a fever and cough. 

"There is much we still don’t know," said Mackay, prior to the news on Sunday that the disease could spread before symptoms show.

Several airports in the U.S. and other nations have imposed screening programs to detect travelers showing symptoms of the virus. 

The U.S. is a big destination for Chinese travelers. In 2018, some 3 million visits were made by Chinese nationals to the U.S., according to the U.S. Travel Association. China is also the top country of origin for foreign students of higher education in the U.S. – with about 370,000 coming from the Asian nation in 2019 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the International Educational Exchange. 

Economic Toll Spreads, too

The economic toll of the potential pandemic is also creating unease, as many look to the SARS infection of the early 2000s as a model for what to expect. That public health tragedy infected 8,098 and killed 774 hit the world's economy to the tune of between $30 billion and $100 billion, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association

Both U.S. and Japan -- which is readying for the 2020 Olympics -- began moves to get citizens from their nations from Wuhan, according to the Nikkei Asian Review on Sunday. Honda Motors  (HMC) - Get Report said it was getting out dozens of its employees and their family members, added the Nikkei. 

Hong Kong Disneyland  (DIS) - Get Report also said it was temporarily shutting its theme park's doors over the weekend. 

"We are in close contact with health authorities and the government about the situation," said Hong Kong Disneyland in a statement on its website. It said it will announce a reopening date once it's deemed advisable.

"We think that the current virus outbreak poses a downside risk to our China growth forecast," said a report sent out late Saturday ET by England-based Oxford Economics. The group said that it saw a particular crunch to the nation's economy during the first and possibly second quarter.

As long as the disease is contained as SARS eventually was, the "impact should begin to fade," said the report by Tommy Wu, Oxford's senior economist, and Priyanka Kishore, head of India and Southeast Asia Economics.

The coronavirus outbreak has emerged as a "new concern" especially for China's travel and tourism industries, said another report out earlier in the week by Capital Economics -- which also showed hopes it would be contained as SARS eventually was and warned of the effects on Hong Kong's economy.

Capital Economics (Asia) Pte. Ltd

Courtesy of Capital Economics. 

But while it appears so far that SARS was deadlier per rate of total infections, that disease did not spread while people showed no symptoms.

"The economic damage would be greater if the virus is more difficult to contain," said Kishore in an email to TheStreet on Sunday night after asked to respond to news about fears of the disease's ability to spread more rapidly than previously though. "However, I think it is still Asia that will feel the impact more as around 80% of Chinese trips remain within the region."

Wu and Kishore said in their report that they "expect the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus to be mostly ... felt on consumption (through retail and tourism-related sectors) and to a lesser degree on other economic drivers (such as investment and industrial value added). We also anticipate the economic impact to be less severe compared to the SARS episode, at least for now."

"We also expect the government to roll out measures, if needed, to stabilise growth. Though we do not expect significant monetary easing amid the ongoing campaign to rein in financial risks."

Other parts of Asia could see a "spillover" effect, too, said the report. The authors expect nations whose economies rely heavily on tourism and Chinese tourists -- such as Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Philippines -- to feel some pain.

For perspective, "the Hong Kong market bottomed in late April 2003, at the height of worldwide panic over SARS, while the Shanghai Composite topped. So one market had it priced in, while the other did not," wrote Real Money columnist Helene Meisler in her Top Stocks newsletter about the fallout from the SARS crisis, which occurred while she was living in Shanghai.

Human Cost Rises Daily

As of Sunday around noon, China's government had reportedly warned that its official number of cases of the disease could be far higher than the current number of around 2,000 patients.

The coronavirus is one of a large family of viruses that can infect people, but often are found camels, cats, bats and other wild animals. 

"Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve and infect people and then spread between people," according to the CDC. 

In recent decades, other examples of coronaviruses have included MERS and SARS

"Over time, the isolation of Hubei should stop cases spreading in China and internationally," said Mackay. "But cases already incubating elsewhere in China may become the next problem. And this doesn't stop spread within the closed zones. Millions of susceptible hosts could mean these giant virus incubators created by this process, would have to stay closed for a very long time or else the virus still spreading within them will just start spreading outwards again once the quarantine is lifted. And what about conditions within? And the psychological health of the citizens? Will fear stop patients going to hospital thus increasing spread and case severity among friend and family groups sharing houses?"

This story is being updated.