Top US Official Warns Against Assuming New Coronavirus is on the Decline

February 12, 2020 Updated: February 12, 2020
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Though Chinese officials claim the number of new coronavirus infections are on the decline, a top American official warned against “wishful thinking” and said virus still poses a serious threat.

“I think that we better be careful about jumping to the conclusion that this is turning around, because when you look into monitoring of infections you sometimes see it go up and down,” Dr. Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Disease, said during an appearance on Bloomberg TV on Feb. 12.

The number of new cases reported every day is alarming, Fauci said.

“I think we better be careful that as much as we want things to turn around, we may not have wishful thinking. We still have a very serious problem in China and as we get more travel-related cases, the threat of this becoming more diffuse is great,” he said.

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A man wearing a mask is seen at the Shanghai railway station in Shanghai, China, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus on Feb. 12, 2020. (Aly Song/Reuters)

The official numbers released by the Chinese Communist Party haven’t been verified by outside parties and have been widely questioned. Fauci said the number of cases reported by China is certainly lower than the true number, noting that patients with minimal or no symptoms generally don’t get counted.

“Everyone feels rather confident that the total number of infected people are much greater than the 45,000 count that we’re getting from China.”

Right now, the new virus is “spreading rapidly,” much easier than the SARS virus spread. There are more than five times as many cases of COVID-19, the new virus, in under two months than there was with SARS in an entire year, Fauci noted.

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A driver has his temperature checked at a checkpoint of a village in Vinh Phuc province, Vietnam on Feb. 12, 2020. (Kham/Reuters)

His comments come after a study found that the incubation period for COVID-19 can last for up to 24 days, based on patient observation. The study also found evidence of rapid human-to-human transmission. Such transmission has occurred in multiple countries outside of China.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in Washington this week that China hasn’t broadened its ability to track mild cases and expressed concern about the transmissibility of the virus.

“So far, our strategies seem to be working here in the U.S. But it may be that with additional cases, particularly if they don’t involve symptoms, or very mild symptoms, that it’ll be very difficult to block the spread,” she said.

If containment doesn’t work in the United States, she said, the next strategy would be to work to slow the spread of the virus, delaying its peak. That can be done with “non-pharmaceutical measures” such as social distancing, or having more people telework and possibly closing some schools. The aim would be to reduce crowds and mass gatherings, which has been done in China. Another intervention would be having people who are exposed to the virus self-isolate even if they aren’t showing symptoms.

Dr. Michael Ryan, director of the World Health Organization’s emergency program, said at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday that there’s going to be more and more cases in the coming weeks stemming from people gathering, including at conferences and on cruise ships. “Any time people congregate there’s always going to be a concern,” he said. “There is no such thing as a zero-risk. We must minimize risks.”

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A worker wearing a mask and a protective suit operates a forklift to load boxes containing food to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which is quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, on Feb. 12, 2020. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

A business conference in Singapore in January has been linked to cases in six different countries. A British man who attended the conference then traveled to France, where he infected five other British nationals, including a child. Five people in the United Kingdom also became infected from the man, along with a person in Spain.

Cases among people who traveled to the conference were also confirmed in Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea.

Another 39 people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Japan were confirmed on Wednesday, bringing the total number to 175. The cruise ship, operated by Princess Cruises, was placed in quarantine after arriving back in Yokohama on Feb. 3 after a man who was on the ship tested positive for the virus.

About 3,700 people are on board.

Another ship with no confirmed cases was heading to Cambodia on Thursday, its operator said. Some six countries have rejected the ship’s requests to dock.

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