Officials say most Americans not at risk of coronavirus

Hands on subway straps
Hands on subway straps

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The top US public health officials today said the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, is not a threat to the average American citizen.

"Americans should know this is a potentially very serious public health threat, but Americans should not worry for their own safety," said Alex Azar, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Azar was joined by Robert Redfield, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, and Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Azar began and ended the press conference by imploring the Chinese government to accept the US's offer to send experts from the CDC to aid in the response efforts.

"We are urging China, more cooperation and transparency are the most effective options you can take for an effective response," Azar said. Azar said the United States first offered assistance on Jan 6, and most recently reiterated the offer yesterday.

During the press conference, Azar was alerted to the news that China had agreed to allow a team of international experts led by the World Health Organization to come to China to work on the virus, which he welcomed.

No ongoing spread among US cases

All officials at the press conference offered assurances about the US response to the five confirmed 2019-nCoV cases identified in Washington state, Illinois, Arizona, and California. So far, none of the cases have resulted in secondary transmission, they said, and all patients have cooperated with the CDC in gathering as much information as possible about the illness.

"We have no evidence of human-to-human transmission in the United States," said Messonnier. "All the cases have been directly transmitted from China."

Redfield said the CDC decided to increase surveillance efforts in US airports. Now 20—up from 5—of the nation's largest and busiest airports will practice enhanced screening of passengers traveling from China. Late yesterday the CDC also issued a level 3 travel advisory, suggesting US citizens avoid all nonessential travel to anywhere in China.

Redfield and Messonnier said an important part of the enhanced screening will be educating passengers to look for possible symptoms of 2019-nCoV, as patients may be asymptomatic at the time of travel. The experts urged both travelers and their physicians to take precautions if an upper respiratory illness and fever follow a recent trip to China.

Throughout the press conference, the officials referenced past experience in Asia with coronavirus diseases SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), and avian flu, suggesting the US has the tools to help combat the new coronavirus outbreak.

Symptomatic transmission as likely driver

Fauci explained that China was currently using both the antiviral remdesivir and the antiretroviral drug Kaletra (lopinavir and ritonavir) on a compassionate basis on some nCoV patients. Both treatments, used against Ebola and HIV, respectively, are unproven against the novel coronavirus.

Fauci said monoclonal antibody–based therapies will be the next step in developing a possible treatment for the virus, as will a phase 1 clinical trial of a potential vaccine.

He also addressed concerns about whether the virus could be easily spread by asymptomatic carriers. "The driver of respiratory outbreaks is symptomatic people, not asymptomatic carriers," said Fauci.

FDA launches nCoV site

In related news, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced yesterday it was taking key actions to develop nCoV countermeasures.

The FDA also launched a landing page, or website, for 2019-nCoV information.

"We are committed to keeping the American people informed as we prepare and respond to emerging public health threats, including the novel coronavirus," said FDA Deputy Commissioner of Policy, Legislation, and International Affairs Anna Abram, in a press release. "The agency is committed to ensuring safe and effective medical countermeasures are available as quickly as possible to protect public health."

The FDA said the first step will be developing diagnostic tests that will quickly identify the coronavirus. Such tests would likely be able to benefit from the FDA's Emergency Use Authorization pathway, and developers are urged to follow the links and guidelines provided by the FDA.

See also:

Jan 28 WHO news release

Jan 27 FDA press release

FDA 2019-nCoV website

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