Updates on Wuhan Coronavirus: Over 40,000 Infected, Death Toll Tops 900

Cruise ship cases surge to 70; Singapore, Australia update cases with new details; study shows some symptoms may be overlooked; Japanese university researcher has unsettling finding on infections
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Just weeks ago, many observers were comparing the newly discovered Wuhan coronavirus to the spread -- and ultimately swift containment -- of the SARS virus in the early 2000s. But just after the world recognized the global threat of the pathogen in mid-January, the numbers are telling a dramatically different story. 

Over the weekend, the virus now threatening China and the rest of the world has spread more quickly and killed more patients than its older cousin: As of late Sunday, the Wuhan coronavirus has killed more than 900 people and infected more than 40,000 globally. Only around 3,300 people are known to have "recovered" from their infections, according a disease-mapping project at Johns Hopkins University.

That's compared with the entire SARS pandemic, which, once over, counted 8,098 known infections and an official death toll of 774.

"Ultimately, classic public health measures brought the SARS pandemic to an end," wrote Drs. Catharine I. Paules, Hilary D. Marston, and Anthony S. Fauci in a paper from late last month published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But, they noted, the total global cost from that less widely spread pandemic ranged from $30 billion to $100 billion and was devastating for its victims and their families.

The new virus, dubbed "2019-nCoV," is one of many coronaviruses that are commonly found in camels, bats and other animals. It's also included among the few that have become contagious by humans, including SARS and the far deadlier MERS. The Wuhan coronavirus is believed to have started its spread to people sometime in December in central China. While no treatment, vaccine or cure has been identified, Chinese researchers are currently conducting trials for lopinavir-ritonavir -- sold under the brand name of Kaletra, an HIV drug by AbbVie  (ABBV) - Get Report -- and another treatment in hospitalized patients who have developed pneumonia after getting the virus.

Throwing uncertainty into how dangerous the current virus is are many unknowns. Experts believe the total infections is far higher than recorded and scientists are learning new aspects of the virus nearly daily. 

"It is unclear at the current time whether this outbreak can be contained within China; uncertainties include the severity spectrum of the disease caused by this virus and whether cases with relatively mild symptoms are able to transmit the virus efficiently," wrote researchers at the Imperial College London last month. The researchers, led by infectious disease epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, say they believe the total numbers are higher than the official toll, and that each person likely infects around 2.6 other people. 

Here are several recent discoveries related to the virus:

It's not only a fever, coughing and phenomena. A recent report published in the JAMA found that in a study of 138 patients in China, the most infectious case came from a man who first came to the hospital with abdominal symptoms and was admitted to the surgical department, and doctors didn't flag the patient as having the coronavirus because of the symptoms. "More than 10 health care workers in this department were presumed to have been infected by this patient. Patient-to-patient transmission also was presumed to have occurred, and at least 4 hospitalized patients in the same ward were infected, and all presented with atypical abdominal symptoms," reported the study.

Most health advisories about the virus still, however, focus on respiratory symptoms, and there have been news reports about sick people coming off jets from China but then let go because their symptoms did not appear related to the coronavirus. 

Spreads without symptoms. For every two person-to-person infections of the coronavirus, at least one infection occurs while a patient is not showing symptoms, according to report in the Japan Times of findings by researchers in Hokkaido University. "The findings suggest that it is difficult to contain the illness simply by isolation," Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor at the university, told Kyodo news agency. 

Earlier, a man in Kyoto who had not traveled to China but worked around many tourists was found to be sickened from the virus, according to the Japan Times.

How deadly -- and how severe -- is the virus? An American has died over the weekend in China from the coronavirus and the Department of State has issued of "do not travel" advisory for China. But it's still unclear how deadly and severe the virus is. As of Sunday, the Australian department of health has updated its cases of the virus, and found of the 15 diagnoses, all had come from Wuhan except one person who had contact in China with a confirmed case. "Of the previously reported cases, 5 have recovered. The others are in a stable condition."

In Singapore on Sunday, the nation's ministry of health reported that of its more than 43 known infections, only six have so far recovered, with four of them getting released from the hospital as of that day. Three new patients were diagnosed on Sunday, too. More than half of Singapore's cases were "locally transmitted." Six of the total patients are in critical condition and receiving intensive care.

Yet, in the paper in JAMA on 138 hospitalized patients in China, more than a quarter received intensive care, and 4.3% died, putting the mortality rate at less than SARS, but vastly higher than that of the common flu, and even the deadly flu of 1918.

'New risk to outlook.' In its Friday report, the Federal Reserve said that "possible spillovers from the effects of the coronavirus in China have presented a new risk to the outlook" of economic growth that had otherwise appeared on a relatively steady positive path. "The recent emergence of the coronavirus ... could lead to disruptions in China that spill over to the rest of the global economy. Amid weak economic activity and dormant inflation pressures, foreign central banks generally adopted a more accommodative policy stance," wrote the Fed.

Economic harm unknown. As China's battle with the virus and its extreme steps of quarantines and travel restrictions go on, it's still not clear how long and how hard the economic damage will extend. "We know that the hit to activity has been significant," Capital Economics' senior China economist, Julian Evans-Pritchard, wrote in a report on Friday. It will be "some weeks before we know exactly how bad" the damage is, Evans-Pritchard added, noting the delay of January trade numbers. If the outbreak is contained,  a "good chance" remains that output will return quickly, he added.

"The next few days will be key in determining the leadership’s course of action as there has now been a full incubation period (believed to be up to 14 days) since the first containment measures were introduced. It should become clearer in coming days whether they believe they have brought the spread of the virus under control. There are some tentative signs that the travel restrictions have worked. The daily number of new cases outside of Hubei began to level off a week or so after they were imposed and has been stable since then."

WHO help on way. In a post on Twitter, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, said Sunday that "advance team" is on its way to help China handle the outbreak.

"I’ve just been at the airport seeing off members of an advance team for the @WHO-led #2019nCoV international expert mission to #China, led by Dr Bruce Aylward, veteran of past public health emergencies," he said.

Ship infections. The number of diagnosed coronavirus infection off the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked off Yokohama, Japan, has risen to 70, with more than 100 additional passengers complaining of feeling ill, reported the Japan Times. Princess Cruises is part of Carnival Corporation  (CCL) - Get Report. 

American infections. So far, the official number of diagnosed cases in the U.S. is 12. About 100 people across 36 states are still awaiting diagnosis results, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

This story is being updated throughout the day.