While local health officials await the results of testing to determine whether a Texas A&M student has contracted novel coronavirus, experts said Friday that the strain poses less of a public health threat than the flu.
The Texas A&M student, whom Brazos County Health Authority Dr. Eric Wilke said went to a local emergency room Wednesday night, is showing signs of improvement, officials said. The student traveled to Wuhan, China, within a 14-day window of potential contact and was exhibiting “very mild” upper respiratory infection symptoms associated with the virus. The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District reported Friday that a Baylor University student also may have contracted the coronavirus, which has affected 1,300 people in China. There have been two confirmed cases in the United States.
The Texas A&M student is in voluntary isolation, and health officials expect the result of a sample sent to the Centers for Disease Control as early as today.
Dr. Julian Leibowitz, A&M Health Science Center professor of microbial pathogenesis and immunology, has specifically researched coronaviruses.
“I would be pretty relaxed about it right now,” he said Friday of the recent local developments. “This is flu season, and [the students] are just as likely to have that.”
Leibowitz noted that in China, this strain of coronavirus has shown to have a 3% to 4% mortality rate, killing mostly the elderly. This strain is not unlike many other types of coronaviruses, he said, or even strains of flu, which also can evolve into more serious conditions for older patients. The patients who experience harsher symptoms may develop pneumonia or systemic heart failure. At this time, there is no vaccination for this specific strain.
“It doesn’t appear to be very contagious at this point,” Leibowitz said. “The flu is much more contagious. ... I don’t think anyone should be particularly paranoid yet.”
According to the CDC website, the symptoms of this strain, identified as 2019-nCoV, include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. These symptoms may become present as soon as two days after exposure to germs, or as late as two weeks afterward.
Christine C. Blackburn is an assistant research scientist with the Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs in the Bush School of Government & Public Service and also works as an adjunct faculty member at in the A&M’s department of health promotion and community health sciences in the School for Public Health. She researches issues related to pandemics, and, like Leibowitz, does not predict a rapid spread of the illness in Brazos County.
“From what we’re seeing, its reproduction rate is relatively low,” she said.
Both A&M experts said that like other respiratory coronaviruses, this strain spreads when an affected patient coughs, dispersing aerosol droplets into the air. When another person breathes in those droplets, they may be exposed to the virus. Blackburn pointed out that from what she’s noticed in Chinese cases, the virus is spreading through close contact, such as between family members or physicians who directly deal with infected patients.
The CDC website states that of the patients in China who contracted the illness, many had some link to a seafood and animal market, which might suggest animal-to-human contamination. However, more and more patients have not had exposure to these markets, which would indicate that the disease is moving between humans.
“General good hygiene is important, washing your hands and covering your coughs,” Blackburn said. “All the cases we’re seeing in the United States involve people who traveled to China, with human-to-human close contact.”
Blackburn said she feels this strain of coronavirus is garnering widespread notice because the disease is new and novel.
“The flu is deadlier than this virus,” she said. “But we’re kind of used to the flu.”
She noted that Americans have experienced other types of coronavirus, and that many colds are a form of coronavirus.
“Most people have probably been infected with a coronavirus in their lives,” she said.
You can follow official CDC updates regarding novel coronavirus at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.