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First and foremost, it is really important to know that as of today (February 17, 2020), there is still much we do not know about SARS-CoV-2 (i.e. the official name of the novel coronavirus) and COVID-19 (i.e. the official name of the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2). This uncertainty makes this question difficult to answer with a short or simple response.
However, epidemiologists and scientists from around the world are making rapid and significant real-time progress in understanding the nature of this novel coronavirus. Earlier today, a comprehensive report from the China CDC was released on over 70,000 individual cases in China, which included data for 99% of confirmed cases globally as of February 11th, 2020.
There is very little doubt that COVID-19 is dangerous, but just how dangerous requires a much deeper dive. Here were some of the key takeaways from this report and other research I have done on the topic.
(1) COVID-19 is highly contagious
A main finding of this characterization and exploratory analysis of the first 72,314 cases of COVID-19 found in China in the 40 days between first recognition of the outbreak of pneumonia with unknown etiology on December 31, 2019 to the end of the study period on February 11, 2020 is that this novel coronavirus is highly contagious. It has spread extremely rapidly from a single city to the entire country within only about 30 days. Moreover, it has achieved such far-reaching effects even in the face of extreme response measures including the complete shutdown and isolation of whole cities, cancellation of Chinese New Year celebrations, prohibition of attendance at school and work, massive mobilization of health and public health personnel as well as military medical units, and rapid construction of entire hospitals.
Let’s re-examine the COVID-19 timeline:
Late December 2019: A cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin appears in Wuhan, the city now at the epicenter of this epidemic.
December 31, 2019: Alert issued by the local Wuhan Municipal Health Commission to the China CDC and a notification was sent to the World Health Organization about this outbreak.
January 7, 2020: The pathogen was identified as a new type of coronavirus, and given the name 2019-nCoV. It was now learned that this virus was closely related but distinct to the one that caused the SARS crisis in 2003.
January 11, 2020: The first death is reported (person died two days earlier). The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issues its first public report announcing this novel coronavirus and starts issuing daily update reports.
January 20, 2020: 7 confirmed patients have now died, the virus has spread outside of Wuhan, and this becomes a national issue. China’s National Health Commission takes over primary responsibility.
January 23, 2020: China announces unprecedented quarantine operations in major cities ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday.
In the roughly 1-month period following the first inkling that this might be more than just another flu outbreak, the number of cases went from 104 to +653 to +5,417 to +26,548 roughly every 10 days. In other words, every 240 hours, the number of cases was increasing between 5 to 8 times.
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