Yes, there’s reason to worry about coronavirus, but let’s not panic. As of Feb. 14, approximately 64,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported worldwide. For most people who contract it, it’s a "nasty flu" that lasts a few days, according to Dr. William Spangler, a board-certified emergency physician and global medical director for AIG Travel Guard. If we compare the outbreak to this flu season, between 22 million and 31 million people in the United States alone have contracted influenza between Oct. 1, 2019, and Feb. 1, 2020. Of those, as many as 30,000 have died as a result.
Earlier this week, Northstar Meetings Group’s Loren Edelstein spoke with Dr. Spangler about coronavirus and its impact on meetings and travel. The following is excerpted from that conversation, featured on a recent episode of Eventful: The Podcast for Meeting Professionals. (Note: Outbreak statistics have been updated to reflect reported cases as of Feb. 14.)
The World Health Organization estimates that each infected person passes the virus on to between two and three other people. Given that statistic, is this a self-sustaining virus -- meaning that it’s not going to disappear on its own?
Basically, that means any one person will spread it to approximately 2.5 other people if they are not quarantined and don't take appropriate precautions. Of course, in the first month of this epidemic we didn't really know that much and people in China were going about their business and kissing their families and all those kinds of things, and it spread like wildfire. The hope is that now that we know about it, we can get a handle on that and bring it down as quickly as possible.
WHO also says that the number of cases is doubling every five to seven days. Do you feel that that's accurate?
From the numbers I’m looking at right now, it's not quite that bad. However, my concern is that, while we know that some 64,000 people have this disease, it's probably multitudes of that. Think about how many people -- literally tens of thousands of people -- are unhealthy and are staying in their homes, not reporting it, and are afraid to go to the hospital for fear that they will be separated from their families. I think the numbers are far higher than what we see.
Given the rate that it's multiplying, do you think coronavirus will become a global pandemic?
No, I don’t. I can't predict the future of course. But looking at it right now, we're now a month or so in and the overwhelming majority of cases -- 63,851 as of Feb. 14 -- are still in mainland China. Of a total 1,380 deaths, all but three have occurred in mainland China, mostly in the central province of Hubei
Now we're seeing more cases show up in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the surrounding areas, but still in the United States we have only 15. So, is this going to be something like the Spanish flu of 1918, when a third of the world’s population was infected and about 10 percent of them died? No, I don't think we're going to see that. Will it spread further? Almost undoubtedly, simply because people are still moving.
Now there’s a race to develop a vaccine, but I understand that will take six months to several years before it’s approved for use.
Yes, unfortunately that's just how long it takes. This will probably be hopefully burned out by then, but yeah, this may be one of those viruses that is just going to be with us forever. Coronavirus might be something we are routinely vaccinated against like measles or chickenpox, and we’ll all need to be united against it to keep it under control. Again, we just don't know. We're too early and there are too many things that can happen.
What has to happen for the virus to burn out on its own?
Everybody has to wash their hands. Let's start with that, and we need to keep those people that are infected from spreading it to others. I hate to use the word quarantine because it sounds like they're put in prison and wrapped in Saran Wrap. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about staying home if you’re sick and taking care of yourself.
Remember that for the vast majority of people who get this, it's just a nasty flu. It lasts a few days and then you're okay. So, if those people can stay home and not spread it to 2.5 other people, those numbers will go down simply due to attrition.