How worried should we be about the coronavirus?

 

The perception that we may be on the verge of a worldwide pandemic may be greater than the reality in the case of the coronavirus, which is thought to have originated in China. The coronavirus has now infected over 600 people and has spread to SingaporeSaudia Arabia, and even the United States — although the World Health Organization has just declined to declare it a global health emergency.

China announced that it is quarantining Wuhan, a city of some 11 million, and several nearby cities, blocking air and rail travel in or out, mass transit in the city, and starting to restrict highway travel as well. That could be an excellent public-safety measure if the number of actual cases is far more than reported, but it is helping to spread the public's panic, too — a double-edged sword. And there are growing reports within China of people who say their relatives were infected with or died from the coronavirus but were misdiagnosed or not correctly listed as victims of it.

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In 2002, post-9/11, we felt vulnerable as a society, and our collective psychic trauma made us more susceptible to health scares. A primary example was the existential danger posed by severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, as many became convinced that this emerging contagion was a threat to our planet.  

As I wrote in "False Alarm; the Truth About the Epidemic of Fear," we jumped quickly to worst-case scenarios, especially when it came to invisible, unpredictable pathogens for which we had no treatments or vaccines. In the end, the total number of SARS cases was slightly more than 8,000, with almost 800 deaths. Proper public health measures stopped SARS in its tracks and, ultimately, calmed our fears.

Flash forward to 2020, another time of great national and global insecurity, albeit for different reasons. We once again find ourselves feeling vulnerable to a mysterious new virus that has jumped species from an unknown animal at a seafood market in Wuhan. People huddled close together at a market and around the city have quickly spread an exotic new strain. Air travel compounds the problem immediately, pathogen-filled projectiles hurtling to other lands. No amount of onboard air filters, hand sanitizers, or even masks can stop it.

Adding to our fear is the sense that the ubiquitous symptoms of fever and cough, sore throat and congestion, mean that many hundreds more have the new coronavirus than are being told they have it. Isolated cases in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and, finally, here in the U.S. feel like many more cases exist than are being reported, even if the numbers don’t yet prove it. Close to 600 cases feel like many thousands; 17 reported dead feel like hundreds. Photos of bright yellow hazmat suits are etched into our brains. It feels so feeble to say “wash your hands, cover your mouth when you cough,” or even “wear a mask.” Every productive cough you encounter feels like it may contain the dreaded virus.

We rely on our Centers for Disease Control to contain and isolate, to contact-trace outward from the original cases. We are temporarily comforted by screenings at airports, though fever or increased heart rate is certainly not specific for this virus. We appreciate the fact that our major medical centers develop action plans for this emerging strain. However, many of us in the medical world realize that the fact the new coronavirus is easily confused with the flu (at the heart of the flu season), coupled with the fact that an infected person does not show symptoms for days while contagious, means the outbreak is challenging if not impossible to completely control.

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We have no vaccine or anti-viral treatments as props against our fear. All we can do is wait, and, as with SARS, our fear will fade as time passes, and no killer pandemic emerges. 

The Wuhan coronavirus contagion is evolving, and we don’t know yet how much of a threat it is to us. It is a safe bet that our nightmarish fears are far worse than the reality, that the king of viruses — it looks like a crown when viewed under an electron microscope — is less of a danger than the garden-variety yearly flu, which kills millions around the world annually. The ho-hum flu is so underestimated that more than 50 percent of Americans, for example, fail to take the vaccine we do have to protect us against it. 

Emotions drive our response to health scares, such as the new coronavirus. Unfortunately, those who worry tend to take fewer precautions than those who don’t, and more viruses spread — as a result, riding on a nervous, fearful cough or sneeze. 

At times like this, we need "fear leaders" — confident, careful scientists — to inform and comfort us, leading us through the wilderness of our worry. I reached out to one such leader and legend, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He indicated that work is already underway for a vaccine. “We hope to have a candidate in Phase 1 trials within three months," he said. "Bottom line is that there is a good chance that, over time, we will develop a vaccine for this virus.” 

Not having a vaccine or treatment adds to the overall alarm — and makes clear why any disease outbreak must be treated seriously, in every aspect. However, jumping to the worst-case scenario does as much harm as underreacting. With only one case here in the U.S., the chance that you have this virus is currently as close to zero as possible, even if this feels like a lot more. 

Marc Siegel, M.D., is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a Fox News medical correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @drmarcsiegel.