For years now, scientists have been warning about the possibility of an ominous disease that could cause a deadly epidemic. On February 7, 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the potential pathogens an official name of “disease X.” Now, the WHO is giving the world a warning that the coronavirus is looking more and more like the disease X that they predicted.
The latest coronavirus update shows that the contagious disease isn’t slowing down. There are now over 2,600 deaths from COVID-19 as of February 23, and more than 79,000 worldwide confirmed cases, 77,000 are in mainland China.
Two Chinese doctors died within a 24-hour timespan. Both were previously healthy and relatively young. Xia Sisi, a 29-year-old digestive physician working at Xiehe Jiangbei Hospital in Wuhan, died on Sunday morning from the coronavirus. Huang Wenjun, a 42-year-old deputy chief physician at the department of respiratory medicine at Xiaogan Central Hospital in Hubei province, also died on Sunday.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed was down 1,029 points (3.55%), mostly because of the spread of coronavirus internationally and the effects it could have on global business and supply chains. The stock market freefall was the Dow’s biggest point and percentage-point drop in two years.
There are 53 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in the United States, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday. This number includes 36 people who were aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, 14 US cases, and three people repatriated from Wuhan, China.
“We are not seeing community spread here in the United States yet, but it’s very possible — even likely — that it may eventually happen,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Oman announced their first cases of coronavirus on Monday. There are now 36 countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Italy has seen the COVID-19 death count reach six, and there are at least 219 cases, the most in Europe. There have been 10 towns in northern Italy that have completely shut down, basically locking down 50,000 people. The coronavirus death toll spiked to 12 in Iran, with 66 confirmed cases.
Because the coronavirus has spread so fast and can be shared by people who are showing no symptoms, the World Health Organization warned that COVID-19 could be the feared disease X.
Disease X is a placeholder name for a potential new pathogen that could cause an epidemic. The WHO said disease X “represents the knowledge that a serious international epidemic could be caused by a pathogen currently unknown to cause human disease.” The “X” stands for “unexpected,” meaning health organizations should prepare for a disease unlike any other.
In 2018, the WHO also named other possible threats including Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF); Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease; Lassa fever; Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS); Nipah and henipaviral diseases Rift Valley fever (RVF); and Zika.
“As experience has taught us more often than not the thing that is gonna hit us is something that we did not anticipate,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Just the way we didn’t anticipate Zika, we didn’t think there would be an Ebola that would hit cities.”
Marion Koopmans, a professor of viroscience at Erasmus University and WHO advisor, warns that the coronavirus could be the ominous disease X that health officials fear. In a paper titled “The Novel Coronavirus Outbreak: What We Know and What We Don’t” published in the scientific journal Cell, Koopmans wrote: “Whether it will be contained or not, this outbreak is rapidly becoming the first true pandemic challenge that fits the disease X category, listed to the WHO’s priority list of diseases for which we need to prepare in our current globalized society.”
The aspect of COVID-19 that scientists are currently most worried about is that the respiratory disease can be spread by people who are showing no symptoms. There is one case, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, of a 20-year-old woman who carried COVID-19 from the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan. She spread it to at least five relatives to the Chinese city of Anyang, over 400 miles away, while showing no symptoms or fever. In mid-January, the woman tested negative for COVID-19, but in a later follow-up test, she was positive.
Another report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed all of China’s reported cases of COVID-19 from December 8 to February 11, a total of 72,314 patients. They found that 1.2% of infected people showed no symptoms at all.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship has the most confirmed cases of novel coronavirus outside of mainland China with 634. However, more than half of those infected, 322, showed no symptoms of the coronavirus.
“It’s very clear that the people who are getting caught in that umbrella of reporting are the people that present themselves to a hospital,” said Dr. Fauci. “There’s another whole cohort that is either asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic.”
“Those countries are canaries in the coalmine that the virus is quite active — a sign that containment is reaching the end of its applicability,” Ian Mackay, an associate professor of virology at the University of Queensland, said of the first countries to have outbreaks. “There could be these sorts of spot fires burning everywhere with us not knowing.”
Despite there being nearly 80,000 confirmed cases, a study by the Imperial College London said that about two-thirds of coronavirus cases exported from China have not been detected yet.
“We compared the average monthly number of passengers traveling from Wuhan to major international destinations with the number of COVID-19 cases that have been detected overseas,” Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, one of the study’s authors from the Imperial College London, explained. “Based on these data, we then estimate the number of cases that are undetected globally and find that approximately two-thirds of the cases might be undetected at this point. Our findings confirm similar analyses carried out by other groups.”
Being able to identify and quarantine carriers of the disease is critical to preventing the spread of the contagion. Even with SARS, health officials could identify possible victims by checking for fever.
Mild symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. As the disease intensifies, it leads to pneumonia, kidney failure, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and even death.