Coronavirus containment

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 4th of February, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, containing the coronavirus.

As you’ve just heard, China has adopted unprecedented measures to try to contain it. Other countries have followed suit, including the United States.

All U.S. flights from China will reroute to airports with screening centers. Anyone coming from the part of China where the virus originated could face a mandatory two-week quarantine.

REICHARD: Australia, Japan, and most European nations have also adopted strict quarantine measures. Despite these efforts, new cases continue to pop up around the world.

Joining us now to talk about this new global health threat is Charles Horton. He’s a physician and a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course, as am I! 

Good morning, Dr. Horton!


REICHARD: Well, I’d like to start with the worldwide reaction to the virus. As we’ve already noted, the efforts to contain it really are unprecedented. And yet we deal with a much more common deadly virus every winter: the flu. The government says about 34,000 people died from the flu last year just in the United States alone. Why are health officials so worried about the coronavirus, and from a medical perspective, is that concern warranted?

HORTON: Right now there are still a lot of questions without good answers, and one of the biggest is exactly how the virus goes from person to person—in other words, just how contagious is this? There’s a cluster of cases in Germany that shows that it is possible for it to be transmitted before people develop symptoms, although the World Health Organization is now saying that this isn’t the main way it gets transmitted. And that might make sense too, given what we know about the woman thought to have started that cluster of cases. It doesn’t seem like anyone else around the woman on the flight to Germany, or who stayed at her hotel, or what-have-you, got sick. She had to have eaten somewhere, and it doesn’t seem anybody got sick that way either. She wasn’t diagnosed with the virus until she returned to China, but she did manage to infect people in Germany she spent the most time with.

REICHARD: Well, that seems a bit contradictory, doesn’t it? 

HORTON: It does because on the one hand, we know she was contagious prior to showing symptoms. But on the other hand, we have a group of people who got infected and another group of people who would have had to be around her who didn’t get infected. So this is a big challenge for the WHO and for the virologists: exactly what radius did one have to be within, exactly what length of contact did one need with this lady to fall ill. They’re now talking about a six-foot radius that folks who are outside of that radius probably wouldn’t have had enough exposure to get sick.

REICHARD: What does this mean for authorities trying to contain the coronavirus outside of China?

HORTON: Outside of China, you of course have one more big variable, which is freedom of movement. There was a fellow in Japan who decided he just didn’t feel like being in quarantine, and the government ended up explaining to the press that that was technically his choice. One does hope he isn’t infecting anybody right now. Thankfully when someone tried that in the group that’s quarantined in California, they did say, “No. Back to quarantine with you.”

Then the other reason, of course, is we don’t yet have a vaccine or much knowledge about what drugs would work against this. With the flu, there is a vaccine and there are drugs that are known to be helpful. Remember we talked about xofluza a while back.

And, third, we don’t yet know what percentage of cases with this bug actually get seriously ill. Knowledge is power. We’re still scrambling for knowledge.

REICHARD: You know, the situation now is reminiscent of two other diseases that prompted worldwide panic. That was Ebola and Zika. In both of those cases, the threat turned out to be not as bad as experts feared. Could we be looking at a similar situation here? Or is there something about the coronavirus itself that makes it different?

HORTON: God willing, the possibility that this is not going to be a major worldwide still does exist. But, Ebola and Zika are not the best comparisons. And, actually, for opposite reasons. 

With Zika, unless you were pregnant, it was a really minor illness. Actually, minor enough that many people who had it didn’t know that they had it at all. They just tested positive for exposure later on. Whereas Ebola was so severe that anyone who caught it did not go on with daily life and infect other people. These patients either ended up in the hospital or they just died and the main risks were to the healthcare teams. 

Zika also had to have—the fancy term is a vector—the mosquitos that carried it. Which meant that it had a huge weakness. You didn’t have to know much about virology to keep Zika from spreading, you just have to know how to kill bugs. Here, coronavirus spreads more like a cold. Being around a person who has it is apparently enough to catch it. And, again, at least some people who get it are able to go out and be around other people while they’re contagious. 

REICHARD: And a very important question is: are there treatments for coronavirus?

HORTON: The $64,000 question! There is a concerted effort to figure out what works and to share information. I am very encouraged to see research platforms—that normally charge for access—establishing online centers where people can post and read research free of charge. New England Journal of Medicine. The Lancet. These are the big names. 

I was just reading an article by an Egyptian researcher using this very high-end molecular modeling to suggest avenues for drug research. I’ve never seen that level of cooperation before. 

But to answer your question, right now the primary treatments for now are supportive. Oxygen, fluids, mechanical ventilation in severe cases. And I’m sure reports are going to start filtering in with the help of these platforms about how patients responded to other things where doctors had access to them and decided to give them a try.

REICHARD: Charles Horton is a WORLD Radio correspondent and physician based in Pennsylvania. Thanks for joining us today!

HORTON: Anytime!

(CDC via AP, File) In this illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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