What You Need to Know About a New Virus Outbreak

This mysterious, respiratory illness, related to the coronavirus that caused SARS, has fueled fears of a global pandemic.

Editor's note:

This article was updated on Feb. 2, with new details.

January 24, 2020

Since the first patient was identified with a new coronovirus in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, it has spread to 25 countries, with 14,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 300 deaths. Eight cases have been reported in the United States.  

The mysterious respiratory illness, known as CoV-201, is similar to the SARS virus that led to a deadly global outbreak in 2003. While there is a test for the virus, there is currently no vaccine. 

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global health emergency this week, and the U.S. State Department raised its travel alert to the highest level, advising Americans not to travel to China. 

The rapidly expanding outbreak has overwhelmed the Wuhan health system and fueled fears of a global pandemic, but uncertainty remains about the size of the epidemic and how efficiently the virus is transmitted from person to person.

“So far, there is no evidence that the Wuhan virus will spread to the same extent as SARS, which reached 33 countries. We do, however, need to prepare for the possibility that this could evolve into a larger outbreak and become a pandemic,” said W. Ian Lipkin, John Snow professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

One of the world's leading virus hunters, Lipkin has been on the front lines of numerous outbreaks, from Ebola to West Nile Virus. At the height of the SARS outbreak in 2003, he helped develop a strategy for containing the virus and curtailing infections and deaths. Columbia News spoke with Lipkin this week about the virus.  

Q. What do we know about the virus behind this outbreak?

A. The Wuhan coronavirus is related to the coronavirus that caused SARS. The symptoms of infection with the Wuhan coronavirus—fever, cough and difficulty breathing—are similar to the symptoms for SARS and other severe respiratory illnesses. Chinese authorities have linked the outbreak to a market where vendors sell wildlife and domestic animals. There are still many questions about the virus, such as how exactly is it transmitted, how infectious it is, how best to treat it, and, most important, how deadly it is. So far, the majority of fatal cases are people who are elderly or have chronic illnesses. 

Q. What steps are public health authorities taking?

A. Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, is under partial lockdown in an effort to contain the virus. Travel restrictions are also in place in several neighboring cities, and Beijing authorities have canceled all large-scale New Year celebrations. Airports around the world, including in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles have implemented extra screenings for passengers who have traveled from infected areas, as officials take steps to trace the steps of infected people to track the virus.

Q. How can we prevent future outbreaks?

A. An estimated 70 percent of infections, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS, influenza, monkey pox and Lyme disease, originate in wildlife. Live animal markets, where different species are often packed closely together, provide a relatively easy route for viruses to jump species and into humans. Such markets were implicated in the emergence of H5N1 influenza (avian influenza) in 1999, and SARS in 2002. The time has come for an international prohibition of the sale of wildlife at live animal markets.

Q. Is there a role for artificial intelligence?

A. Artificial intelligence can enable to detection of emerging viruses. AI requires data inputs such as prescription and non-prescription drug use, health records and discussion trafficking on social media. Researchers are making advances in tracking the trajectory of viral illnesses through AI, and I am strongly committed to using digital epidemiology methods in both acute and chronic illnesses.

Q. Is there anything to do to prevent infection?

A. Basic hygiene is the best bet to minimize the risk of infection. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for 20 seconds; cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze (in a tissue or sleeve, not your hands); and disinfect the objects and surfaces you touch, and masks should be worn by infectious patients who are not in isolation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises clinicians to wear specialized masks or respirators certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in health care settings. 

Click here for Columbia Health’s advisory regarding CoV-2019 and frequently asked questions about the virus.

Click here for information from Columbia University Irving Medical Center experts.