There’s lots of news to catch up with regarding the new coronavirus that emerged last summer in the Middle East and has been causing concern to international health authorities all autumn: additional cases, additional deaths, and new lab evidence that is more than a little concerning.
(This post has been updated; read to the end.)
Holidays. It never fails.
Today, while the United States has been largely off-line following our Thanksgiving holiday (and while Northern Europe was on its way to the pub for Friday evening revelry), the World Health Organization announced four new cases of the novel coronavirus that caused a great deal of worry immediately before the October hajj season. (Earlier posts here and here.)
In its bulletin, released by the WHO’s Global Alert and Response team (GOAR), the agency said:
- Four additional laboratory-confirmed cases have been identified; one of the four has died.
- One case is in Qatar, the location of one of the original two cases earlier this year.
- Three of the new cases, including the dead person, are in Saudi Arabia, site of the other original case (who also died).
- Two of the three Saudi cases, including the dead person, are members of the same family.
- In that family, two other people have also fallen ill, and one has died. The man who recovered showed no laboratory evidence of infection with the novel coronavirus. Analysis of the case of the person who died is continuing.
Have we dodged a bullet? Or is the other shoe yet to drop?
The uncertainty over the novel coronavirus that was recognized last month is captured in a research report and editorial just released this evening by the New England Journal of Medicine. (I believe these are the first peer-reviewed papers on the new organism, though it has several times been written up in the European CDC’s bulletin, EuroSurveillance.) The papers are a treatment report and analysis of the first known case, the 60-year-old Saudi man who died in June, and an examination of the larger issues raised by this case and the second known one, which occurred in Qatar and London in September.
Short summary of the situation from the second paper, co-authored by the former chief of the division of viral diseases at the US CDC:
Since there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission or virus transmission to healthcare workers, [the novel virus] is not currently a public health risk. (NEJM Anderson 2012)
On Feb. 21, 2003, a 65-year-old physician who lived in the Chinese province that abuts Hong Kong crossed into the territory surrounding the city and checked into a hotel in Kowloon. He was given a room on the ninth floor. Sometime during his stay — no one has ever fully traced his path — he encountered roughly a dozen other people; most of them were hotel guests whose rooms were on the same floor, but some were staying on other floors, and some were visitors to events there. The physician had been sick for a week with symptoms that had started like the flu, but were turning into pneumonia, and the next day, he checked out of the hotel and went to a Hong Kong hospital. Before the end of the day, he died.
In the next few days, the people who had crossed paths with the physician left the hotel. Most of them were visitors to the special administrative region: Hong Kong is not only a port and transit hub, but a business and shopping destination for much of the Pacific Rim. They went to Vietnam, Singapore, Canada, and Ireland. As they traveled, some of them started to feel as though they had picked up the flu.