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Officials Pinpoint First Wuhan Coronavirus Case in United States

The mostly mysterious pathogen is known to pass from person to person, causing respiratory illness

Coronaviruses, like the newly identified Wuhan coronavirus, are so named for their halo- or crown-like appearance. (Public Domain)
smithsonianmag.com

A mysterious respiratory virus that has infected hundreds in China has now officially made landfall in the United States, bringing the total number of countries afflicted by the newly described Wuhan coronavirus up to at least six.

For now, the Center for Disease Control has declared the immediate health risk the virus poses to the American public to be low. The infected patient, a man from Washington state who recently returned home from a trip to Wuhan, China, began experiencing symptoms last week, and was quickly hospitalized. He remains in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, reports Merrit Kennedy for NPR.

The outbreak began in the city of Wuhan, a bustling hub home to about 11 million. Chinese officials announced they would be shutting down transportation in and out of city beginning Thursday, report Amy Qin and Vivian Wang for the New York Times. But the virus’ spread to the United States—a cross-continental spillover that also occurred with SARS, another form of coronavirus, in 2003—has sparked concern from officials around the world.

“This disease is on the cusp of becoming a pandemic,” Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a Unite States global health research organization working in China, tells Julia Belluz at Vox. “We have to be extra vigilant.”

Since the coronavirus was first acknowledged by Chinese officials on December 31, 2019, a flurry of questions have arisen, many of which remain unanswered. Traced back to Wuhan’s Huanan South China Seafood Market, the virus almost certainly made its first hop into a human from an animal, but also appears to move from person to person, triggering a spate of fever-like and respiratory symptoms, occasionally progressing to pneumonia and death. More than 470 cases and 17 deaths have been reported so far in China, and additional infections have now been documented in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and South Korea, reports Roni Carin Rabin for the New York Times. However, some experts caution that undetected cases may bring the true toll up to 1,300 or 1,700, which makes sussing out the mortality rate extremely difficult, according to Vox.

One of the biggest remaining uncertainties is just how fast human-to-human transmission occurs. Although animals were implicated in the first infections, confirmed cases in health care workers suggest the virus is better equipped to move between people than once thought, Kirsty Short, a virologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, tells Nicky Phillips, Smriti Mallapaty and David Cyranoski at Nature News. The identity of the species originally carrying the virus also remains unknown, as a variety of marine creatures, poultry and red meats are shipped into Wuhan’s Hunan South Market each day. On Wednesday, a team of researchers in China published a peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Medical Virology that pinpoints snakes as a possible culprit, though other animals may also be capable of carrying the virus.

This week, millions of people will be traveling to China for Lunar New Year on January 25. However, as Qin and Wang report for the New York Times, many have begun to cancel their trips to the Wuhan and surrounding regions.

Today, the World Health Organization is convening to discuss whether to declare the outbreak an international public health emergency. This designation, if approved, will effectively sound an international alarm, meant to spur countries into leveraging further resources to stop the disease from spreading further.

But already, countries around the globe have leapt into action. Airports, including several international hubs in the United States like New York’s John F. Kennedy and Los Angeles International, have set up additional security screenings for passengers arriving from infected areas. Some hospitals are also now requesting recent travel information from new patients with Wuhan-like symptoms.

A transportation lockdown is now in place in Wuhan, where locals are also required to don face masks in public, and officials are ramping up screening at major transportation hubs, according to the New York Times.

“Until we have more information, it's really hard to know how worried we should be,” says Josie Golding, an infectious disease expert at the Wellcome Trust, in an interview with the BBC. Already, comparisons to SARS have fueled some fear, she says. But a lot has changed since then, she adds. Now, “we’re a lot more prepared to deal with those types of diseases.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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