The current Wuhan coronavirus health scare is worsening every day, and unfortunately, the virus is moving faster than the bureaucrats in charge of dealing with it.
The fight against the coronavirus has been hampered by unreliable Chinese reporting about the disease that has hit China hardest, the slowness of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in acting, and the long period in which the Wuhan coronavirus remains infectious without revealing its deadly symptoms.
Let’s start by looking at what we’ve heard from China and elsewhere. As of Wednesday, coronavirus deaths reported in China have topped 1,113 and more than 45,000 people in Asia have become ill from the virus. The vast majority of people stricken with the coronavirus contracted it in China, where the virus first began infecting people in December.
However, the Chinese government – like other communist regimes – is not exactly known for accurately reporting statistics, especially about its own embarrassments or when nervous local officials fudge the numbers to look good in the capital.
This weakness was at the heart of the initial downplaying of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time.
And let’s not forget that this Chinese government is the one that arrested the doctor whistleblower who revealed the coronavirus to the world.
Keeping all this in mind tells us the coronavirus epidemic could be worse than it appears.
The Chinese are certainly taking harsh measures to limit the spread of the virus, though how effective they are remains to be seen. Chinese leaders made the unprecedented decision Jan. 23 to lock down Wuhan, a city with a population of about 11 million – bigger than New York City.
But by the time of the lockdown, many people who had been in Wuhan when the coronavirus outbreak began had already left the city.
Unfortunately, the United States did not impose any formal quarantine on people from Wuhan entering our country for 10 crucial days, meaning that potentially thousands of infected people who had been in Wuhan might have entered the U.S.
We are still learning more about the rapidly evolving coronavirus, but what we do know is troubling. The deadly virus is highly transmittable, likely through the respiratory system. And treatment often requires lengthy hospital admissions of two weeks or more.
But perhaps the biggest problem in stopping the spread of the coronavirus is the fact that infected individuals show no telltale symptoms such as fever or cough for what has been estimated to be up to 14 days – but can infect others with the virus during this period.
In other words, infected people might have no idea they were infected for two weeks, and so might be going about their normal lives and spreading the virus to others unknowingly before becoming ill.
With the Chinese now having imposed a lockdown on a population larger than the entire United States and the coronavirus having spread to over 20 countries, including ours, the CDC’s testing guidelines are far too limited.
Under the current CDC guidelines, if you contract the coronavirus from someone you did not know was infected – in public transit, in a crowded restaurant, at a concert – even if you developed symptoms and were hospitalized, you would not be tested for the virus.
Even if you have traveled to China and cannot point to someone confirmed to be infected, the CDC would not have you tested.
Compare this to Singapore, which has been testing samples from hospitalized influenza and pneumonia patients unlinked to any known disease carrier. Singapore also posts detailed information about the infected (without identifying them by name) in daily updates, identifying addresses the infected visited so that members of the public can determine if they were potentially exposed.
The CDC simply tells you the state where infected people live. It’s not especially helpful to know that someone somewhere in the 160,000 square miles of California was infected.
We certainly hope that transmission peaks, that treatment and outcomes improve, that quarantines can end and hundreds of millions of people can return to a normal life. More likely than not, we will beat this back.
But we must be wary of our handling of people who are infected and Chinese data. And the CDC must be more vigilant and transparent in identifying and isolating potential coronavirus patients.
Grant Starrett is an attorney and former candidate for Congress who reviews books at www.GrantReadsBooks.com