Should You Be Worried About the Coronavirus? 1

This article is part of the Debatable newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it Tuesdays and Thursdays.

For the third time this century, a new strain of coronavirus, a family of pathogens that cause respiratory illness in birds and mammals, has jumped species and infected humans. Having broken out in the city of Wuhan, the virus, likely spread through coughing and sneezing, has now sickened more than 4,500 people and killed at least 106 in China.

On Monday, The New York Times reported that five people in the United States had tested positive for the illness. But how worried should you really be? Here’s what public health experts and others are saying.

‘A cause for caution — not for alarm’

The outbreak is believed to have started at a wholesale market in Wuhan, where vendors legally sold live animals, including wildlife, in close quarters, sparking debate about China’s game trade. “This is where you get new and emerging diseases that the human population has never seen before,” said Kevin J. Olival, a biologist and vice president of research with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization.

In response to the contagion, China — still carrying the memory of SARS, the century’s first coronavirus to make the leap to humans, which killed nearly 800 people — has temporarily banned the sale of wild animals and effectively placed more than 35 million people on lockdown, blocking expressways and canceling all flights and trains out of the region.

[Related: Are the Quarantines Ethical and Effective?]

It’s the largest quarantine in history, but it’s unlikely to contain the virus, writes Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan.

  • The quarantine has taxed Wuhan’s ability to care for its sick while doing little to prevent the virus’s spread, Dr. Markel notes. Amid the Lunar New Year holiday, China’s busiest travel season, some five million people had already left the city before it was sealed.

  • “The more we learn about it, the greater the possibility is that transmission will not be able to be controlled with public health measures,” Dr. Allison McGeer, a Toronto-based infectious disease specialist, told Helen Branswell at STAT News.

“I think that our first concern can rightly be the people in China,” the Columbia University epidemiologist Simon Anthony told Slate.

  • The quality of health care in China has not kept pace with the country’s economic expansion, reports The Times’s Sui-Lee Wee. Strained even during ordinary times, doctors are overwhelmed, and both medical equipment and space are in short supply.

  • “It is very scary,” one Wuhan resident, whose wife developed a fever but was refused admission to hospitals, told Ms. Wee. “If it’s real, we have a child and elderly parents at home. What if we all get sick?”

But many experts say people in the United States shouldn’t panic. The virus is thought to be less lethal than both SARS and MERS, the last zoonotic coronavirus to infect humans, in 2012. And the vast majority of confirmed cases remain in mainland China, as Catherine Kim reported at Vox.

  • “Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization.

  • Although the outbreak is a “very serious public-health threat, the immediate risk to the U.S. public is low at this time,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Friday.

For perspective: The flu kills roughly 35,000 Americans every year. This season, it has already sickened an estimated 15 million Americans and killed 8,200, according to C.D.C. estimates.

  • Influenza kills more Americans every year than any other virus, Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, told Liz Sabo at Kaiser Health News. But the flu is rarely paid such attention, and fewer than half of adults get a vaccine.

  • “When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there’s just no comparison,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Ms. Sabo. “Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison.”

“If Americans aren’t afraid of the flu, perhaps that’s because they are inured to yearly warnings,” Ms. Sabo writes. “For them, the flu is old news. Yet viruses named after foreign places — such as Ebola, Zika and Wuhan — inspire terror.”

The Beaverton, a satirical publication, summed up matters thusly:

‘We don’t know how bad it will get’

There’s still a good deal we don’t know about the coronavirus. It’s too early to determine exactly how deadly or contagious it is, and as the Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has pointed out, the Chinese government seems to have tried to play down the outbreak, perhaps undercounting the number of infections and deaths. A vaccine will probably not be viable until this summer at the earliest.

[Related: Read the W.H.O.’s travel advice and tips for how to protect yourself]

The United States needs to do more to prepare for an epidemic, writes Dr. Saad B. Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. For one thing, he argues, there’s little evidence that President Trump is taking the potential threat from the coronavirus seriously enough. But more broadly, there are clear lessons to heed from the SARS and 2014 Ebola outbreaks:

  • The American response should be led by major public health scientists and agencies, such as the C.D.C. and the National Institutes of Health, rather than politicians: “Decisions such as border screenings, travel restrictions and potential quarantine have major public health consequences, and they should be driven by science and emerging biological and epidemiological evidence,” Dr. Omer writes.

  • Congress also needs to fund the nationwide network of hospitals and treatment facilities established after the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which enables prompt testing and isolation of patients, write Ronald A. Klain, the former White House Ebola response coordinator from 2014 to 2015, and Nicole Lurie, a former assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services. That funding is set to expire in four months.

The coronavirus could also threaten the global supply chain of pharmaceuticals, Ed Silverman reports.

  • Roughly 80 percent of active ingredients used by commercial sources to produce finished medicines come from China, he writes. Most ingredient production occurs several hundred miles east of Wuhan, but it’s not hard to imagine the virus and the quarantine spreading in that direction, bringing with them the possibility of shortages.

  • “We need a government entity that monitors global supply and demand — and events like this outbreak — to understand our vulnerabilities, predict possibilities and have a plan to prepare, rather than scramble,” Rosemary Gibson, a health care and patient safety expert at the Hastings Center, told Mr. Silverman. “We track food supplies around the world. We do this for energy supplies. We need to do the same thing for medicines.”

‘Disease and discrimination are two sides of the same coin’

The first victim of an infectious disease outbreak is often rational decision-making, write Mr. Klain and Ms. Lurie, which tends to open the door to discrimination in forms both malicious and misguided.

  • Ann Coulter, a right-wing commentator, beseeched President Trump on Twitter to ban travel from China.

  • In New York City, one school district canceled a field trip to Chinatown ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations. One parent, Amy Lee-Ludovicy, a Hong Kong native, told The Times that she worried her two children were facing discrimination in ways they had not before. “They are being taught, ‘Let’s just stay away from them,’” she said.

There is a troubled history in predominantly white countries of racializing infectious diseases, writes Alan Zheng in The Sydney Morning Herald.

  • “The Ebola outbreak perpetuated images of the ‘Dark Continent’ and exacerbated existing patterns of xenophobia toward black communities,” he writes, also noting how Haitians in the United States were barred from donating blood in the 1980s after being unfairly labeled a risk group for AIDS.

  • “Reporting of the virus latches on to a double anomaly: the fear, speculation and uncertainty inherent in the spread of new diseases, as well as a fascination with the darkened interiors of China — a country which continues to evade mainstream literacy in Australia and whose size and scale conjure fantasy at every turn,” he writes.

[Related: The coronavirus panic is turning the United Kingdom into a hostile environment for East Asians.]

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“A Running List of Disinformation Spreading About The Coronavirus” [BuzzFeed]

“Wuhan Beyond the Coronavirus: Steel, Cars and Spicy Noodles.” [The New York Times]

“China’s Battle With a Deadly Coronavirus, in Photos.” [The New York Times]

“Is China Setting Itself Up for Another Epidemic?” [The New York Times]

“Wuhan Coronavirus Map: Tracking the Spread of the Outbreak” [The New York Times]


Here’s what readers had to say about the last edition: Donald Trump’s impeachment defense.

Jim from Missouri: “The most significant aspect of Trump’s defense is not the 110-page smokescreen invented by his lawyers. The single most important thing is that they are doing everything in their power to prevent evidence and witnesses from being brought into the proceeding.”

Samuel Moyn, a professor at Yale Law School: “One point of superiority to @nikobowie’s article is that it is historicist in order to be presentist. What matters isn’t what past actors decided to do or thought their text meant, but what the best present reasons are for one or another choice.”

Larence F. Winthrop, a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals (via email): “I take slight issue with the statement that the concept of ‘executive privilege’ originated in President Eisenhower’s administration. In reality, the issue of executive privilege was first raised in the trial of Marbury v. Madison in the United States Supreme Court in 1803.” (Mark J. Rozell, the author of a book on executive privilege, has written that George Washington laid the conceptual foundation for the power, though the term was not a part of common language until the Eisenhower administration.)