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Coronavirus Response Likely a Massive Overreaction

SNA (Tokyo) — With the keen media attention and the escalating response from governments around Asia and beyond, it would not be unreasonable for a large section of the public to feel quite afraid of the Wuhan Coronavirus, but what researchers are discovering is a level of threat to human health which may not be much greater than the seasonal flu.

At a press conference this morning in Tokyo, Hiroshi Nishiura of Hokkaido University’s Graduate School of Medicine reported on his research team’s findings, so far, on the Wuhan Coronavirus, which scientists are calling 2019-nCoV.

On the one hand, Nishiura suggests that efforts to block the spread of the coronavirus–the blockades of Hubei Province, health checks at national borders, quarantines, etc.–are unlikely to be very effective due to the nature of the affliction.

First of all, current data suggests that perhaps 50% of the infected are entirely asymptomatic, spreading the coronavirus without even knowing they are carriers. Likewise, even those who do develop symptoms have probably infected others before they begin feeling unwell. The true number of infected, Nishiura contends, is probably more than ten times larger than what the world is reading in its morning newspapers. That means there are already likely to be more than 200,000 infected individuals.

In other words, efforts at isolating and containing the coronavirus are probably doomed to failure, and as governments begin to grapple with this reality, their policies will shift toward trying to mitigate the consequences.

How serious are those consequences? Not as dire as the policy responses are suggesting.

Scientists are trying to get a better handle on just how dangerous this coronavirus really is, and Nishiura’s team believes that it’s not any sort of existential threat, at least in its current form.

When accounting for all of the likely asymptomatic cases and the fact that most of those who do suffer symptoms experience it as a minor cold, Nishiura currently estimates the death rate among the infected at about 0.3% to 0.6%, or more-or-less comparable to the Asian Flu of 1956-1958. Strong, healthy people are not likely to face much of a threat at all.

The Asian Flu had a total death toll that was probably in excess of one million people worldwide, which sounds very dangerous, but it compares to a yearly death toll of about half a million for ordinary seasonal flu.

The bottom line is that the Wuhan Coronavirus may be only two or three times more lethal than ordinary seasonal flu. This is a concern to be sure, but not exactly worthy of mass global panic.

Moreover, Nishiura notes that the SARS coronavirus went extinct after a few years, and its quite possible that, as it mutates, the Wuhan Coronavirus too may not stay with us forever. It may come and go.

Like all scientists, Nishiura emphasizes that all conclusions are tentative, and that its the very newness and uncertainty of the Wuhan Coronavirus that provides much of the danger. No one knows where it will go from here. But, on current evidence, it would appear that dramatic public policies attempting to stop the Wuhan Coronavirus are unlikely to succeed as well as a major overreaction to the scale of the threat.

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