Coronavirus update: Virus spreads to United States


Emma Seely, Managing Editor

Although it initially seemed as if the threat of coronavirus would be largely contained to its origin place of China, it is now becoming clear that the respiratory illness will affect much larger sections of the world. China still remains the most heavily affected area, but as the virus spreads to nearby countries and places farther away, world leaders are struggling to contain the illness before it becomes a global pandemic. 


“Even though the vast majority of cases are still in China, the epidemic has spread to other parts of the world (South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran among others),” says Dr. Wendy Schluchter, professor of virology and chair of UNO’s department of biological sciences. “This virus is no longer contained in this region [China] of the world.”


The current strain of coronavirus, called novel coronavirus or COVID-19, causes flu-like symptoms and has resulted in over 3,000 deaths so far, nine in the United States as of press time. Many of these deaths are older adults with underlying medical conditions, such as HIV or diabetes, that affect the immune system


As Schluchter mentions, efforts to contain the virus initially focused heavily on restricting travel to and from places like China or Japan, as the virus is spread through respiratory droplets, making it as easy to spread as a common cold or regular flu. However, these restrictions were not enough to contain the illness, especially because symptoms were not always obvious. And now that the illness is in the U.S., scientists can only wait to see how quickly the virus spreads. 


“Initially, almost all efforts were to contain this virus from escaping [China’s] borders,” says Schluchter. “It appears that there is a long incubation period (14-24 days) so many people traveled before they knew they had been infected. Unfortunately, the state department decided to evacuate U.S. citizens who were being quarantined on a cruise ship off the coast of Japan. This was against the advice of the CDC scientists, who felt they should remain on the ship in their cabins until the transmission time period had passed with no symptoms and they tested negative.  Several of those passengers have now tested positive for the coronavirus and are now back in the U.S. So, we will have to see how many cases we get in the US. We can no longer think of this as being contained in China, so travel restrictions are not as useful at this point.” 


It may be impossible to know what exactly caused the virus to spread to the U.S, or to say with any certainty that it wouldn’t have spread here regardless of government response. While some of the hardest hit places, like China, Italy and Japan, have taken extreme measures, such as lockdowns, quarantines and shut downs of businesses and schools, some scientists like Schluchter, are concerned about the “lack of a uniform approach and response coming from our [US] government.” 


“After the 2014 Ebola outbreak, President Obama created a governmental infrastructure to battle pandemic-type diseases, from his cabinet through agencies of government like the CDC and State Department,” says Schluchter. “These were trained epidemiologists and physician scientists whose responsibility was to monitor public health risks and communicate with the health ministries of other governments and the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, since 2017, this has all been dismantled and defunded by this [current] administration.” 


Even though it may be hard to predict how the virus will spread moving forward, or how effective any containment efforts may be, it is clear that citizens of countries with more developed health care structure will be in a better position if the virus is to develop into a full blown pandemic. However, as is reflected in the current death tolls, this virus can be deadly to older patients, as well as people with any sort of underlying condition. As Schluchter mentions, “We don’t know whether this virus will fade away as the weather warms and humidity increases (Most respiratory viruses are transmitted better in the winter months under low humidity conditions).” Even if infected, most people in the US will withstand this virus much like a normal flu, and hope that a vaccine is on its way in time for next year. 


“Since this virus originated in other animals, humans have no past exposure to this virus,” says Schluchter. “Our immune systems are not going to be good at fighting this infection, and there is not yet a vaccine that can train our immune systems to battle it. The good news is that there has been unprecedented sharing of data and results before they have been published on data sharing sites. This has allowed rapid progress to develop tests for the virus, to determine the structure of the coronavirus spike protein which may allow faster development of a vaccine. However, in general, vaccines take time to develop and test, so this is unlikely to quell this epidemic.”


For UNO students, the risk of infection is lower than some other major US cities, such as New York or Los Angeles, as New Orleans has fewer international flights coming in. However, with the unpredictable spread of the virus, and its tendency to not always show symptoms, students should be careful and take precautions, such as washing hands often, and staying home when sick to help keep them and their peers healthy from all illnesses this season. This is especially important for students with underlying conditions, or simply those who would like to help keep the virus away from those who do.  


As the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine continues, students can support global science and public health efforts in any way they can. Even if scientists aren’t able to stop the spread of  coronavirus right now, future world health may depend on our current response. 


“I think the concern is that these events are going to continue to happen as the climate changes and humans and animals come in contact,” says Schluchter. “Many animals harbor diseases that humans can contract (Ebola virus, Nipah Virus, Hantavirus, coronavirus).  We need to fund public health and scientific research, so we are better prepared to deploy plans to contain epidemics and limit their scope. We have scientists who can make rapid progress on studying any new diseases that emerge.”