Good evening all,
Week after recent week, the global spread and impact of the new 'Wuhan' coronavirus continues to dominate our science and health news. Most health experts appear to have underestimated how easily this virus would spread, how long it it would persist, and how damaging it would be for global functions like travel and commerce.
In terms of its lethality, this coronavirus is far less dangerous than the seasonal influenza (the "flu") that we experience each winter here in the U.S., which typically is associated with 3-10x as many deaths annually in this country alone than have been attributed to the Wuhan coronavirus worldwide. Still, this Wuhan coronavirus (more specifically, Covid-19 coronavirus) is a very good demonstration of the fact that infectious diseases do not have to be especially lethal to be very problematic.
Given the scale of disruption this virus has caused, it is no surprise that a variety of treatment and preventative efforts are underway, including attempts to develop effective screens for infected persons, as well as tests of potential immunizations to prevent the contraction of the disease. One of the less well-publicized efforts is the attempt to identify "patient 0" - the first human to "catch" the virus.
Of what value would it be to find this first human subject? In theory, this would allow scientists their best hope of finding the original source of the virus, the animal species from which the virus made its leap to human hosts. Identification of the animal host reservoir (be it bat, snake, pig, or other) could help limit future spread of the virus, and may also inform biological efforts to combat it. The more we know about the virus, the better our chances to counter it.
But, there may be drawbacks to finding "patient 0", as outlined in this recent article:
Is there more harm to be done, or more gain, in finding this first human subject? Experts disagree, but not yet to the point at which the search for this first subject will cease. Finding the original subject in a disease outbreak is a standard epidemiological technique, and there are plenty of examples (including several described in this article) in which finding that first human host of a new disease agent was helpful. Still, the article also describes the risk of stigmatization, and error - what if someone is wrongly identified as the starting point for an epidemic?
In this country, and in other developed nations, there are relatively standardized procedures for dealing with newly emerging diseases. When a new pathogen or new disease begins to spread that eclipses scientific expectations, however, some of the cracks in our defenses begin to show, and efforts to combat the new condition often become less uniform than would be ideal. We are seeing exactly this in recent weeks: there is open debate about how to count the number infected by this virus, continued uncertainty over its origins, and newly emerging evidence of how spectacularly unsuccessful quarantine efforts can be. We still have much to learn, it seems.
The good news is that the virus really is of relatively minor risk to healthy individuals. We've no nearby cases here in Western PA, but should it appear, remember that the best defenses are surprisingly simple: avoid contact with infected individuals, and wash your hands well with soap after public forms of contact. Common sense is equal to best practice, in this case.
Have a great evening -