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Is novel coronavirus or flu a bigger threat? Experts answer your questions

It’s been a few weeks since most Americans started to hear about a new health threat: novel coronavirus. Since then, the number of people who have been confirmed sick — mostly in China– has grown exponentially to more than 40,000, and more than 900 have died. Travel restrictions have been hurriedly enacted to stifle this new illness, including the 14-day quarantine of more than 3,000 passengers on the luxury cruise ship Diamond Princess in the port of Yokohama, Japan, after cases were discovered on board. As the virus spread around the world to the United States — 12 people have been diagnosed in the U.S. so far — public health officials have scrambled to understand its behavior and take action.

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

In reality, vastly more Americans have gotten sick and died from influenza in recent months than novel coronavirus (or nCoV), which belongs to the same family of viruses as the common cold, SARS and MERS. But public health experts do not know if that will always be the case. The medical community also does not know how severe this virus is, or how it can be contained. There is a lot left unknown. But many of your questions can be answered.

China has sequenced the virus’ genome and shared that data with the global community, enabling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. to develop diagnostic test kits to determine if a person is sick with the virus or not. The Food and Drug Administration authorized those kits, which are being distributed to state health departments nationwide this week and also will be shared internationally, said Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

There are currently no medications or vaccines designed to blunt severe illness and death caused by the virus. All of that is being worked out in real time in laboratories around the world. A vaccine alone could take more than six months to develop, said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Until effective inoculation is available, what do you need to know about the virus? PBS NewsHour turned to public health experts for answers.

What are the (early) signs of infection? Is it distinguishable from the flu or cold?

“At present, signs of infection are very much like flu or a bad cold. So especially if you think you have been exposed to someone who has been to China, it is good to stay away from family members and see a doctor for testing immediately.”

— Dr. Lawrence Gostin, global health law professor at Georgetown University who also directs the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National & Global Health Law

How long can the virus live (and presumably continue to be infectious) on a surface such as a doorknob or countertop?

“Currently, there is limited information on the viability of nCoV on surfaces and outside the body, and even quite little about SARS and MERS. Although laboratory studies on coronaviruses indicate that they may survive for hours or even days on some surfaces, evidence suggests that the vast majority of spread of these viruses is from people, not contaminated surfaces.”

— Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies and former CDC director

Is wearing a face mask an effective preventative measure?

“It turns out to be a more complicated question than might be apparent. As a professor, I always answer a question with a question. If wearing a face mask provides some protection against serious respiratory infections, why doesn’t the CDC make that recommendation for all of us at the start of flu season? The scientific basis for whether wearing a surgical mask would protect one to some degree is really pretty modest. On the basis of modest scientific evidence, we don’t see the CDC making that recommendation. If a person wore a surgical mask appropriately, it could provide some protection, but it’s going to be modest because a surgical mask is not designed to protect you from viral infections. It’s designed to prevent surgeons from dropping things into the surgical wound. In health care, when we take care of people with serious respiratory infections in isolation, we don’t wear a mask, we wear a respirator — an N95 respirator. That’s a thicker device than a surgical mask. It provides a tight seal around the cheek, nose and chin. We’re trained to put it on, and you have to check it to make sure it covers your face appropriately, and that the seal is tight. When you wear those, the work of breathing becomes much harder. You’re breathing in and out against a much thicker filter. It’s also somewhat more claustrophobic. After you wear it for a while, your face can get very warm and humid. I can wear those for about a half hour, then leave the isolation room, take them off and take a break. The general public wouldn’t be trained to that point.”

— Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical Center and medical director at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases

Is this year’s flu more of a threat to those in the U.S. than the novel coronavirus?

“While many more Americans will die of influenza, the death rate of those infected with the coronavirus seeks to be equivalent to, or perhaps more than, flu. Coronavirus is a serious disease warranting rigorous public health containment. The reason more people die of the flu is because the number of cases is so high. But if we were to fail and the case count of coronavirus in the U.S. escalated, it could cause many more deaths. Models believe there are many unreported cases of coronavirus, but especially in China. We also fully expect novel pathogens to spur major outbreaks in the future, often when germs “jump” from animals like bats to humans.”

— Dr. Lawrence Gostin

Are the people with novel coronavirus dying from complications? Or are they dying from a specific symptom caused by the virus?

“Coronavirus is harmful, even deadly, to individuals who have multiple health conditions, such as weakened immune systems and chronic diseases. Like the flu, it disproportionately affects older people. Individuals die from complications like pneumonia.”

— Dr. Lawrence Gostin

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Do you think that the approach to dealing with this crisis around the world is too conservative, and if so, what additional steps would you recommend going forward?

“What the world community has done is extraordinarily elaborate. China itself has done a public health experiment that is the largest in humankind — putting quarantine around Wuhan and Hubei. Within Wuhan, people are urged to stay home and not go out in the street. This is a level of quarantine and interruption of travel in China that is really extraordinary. What we’re doing now in U.S. — quarantining, contact tracing — is a very rigorous and comprehensive program — that has been successful. We need to do very well what we’re doing now. Scientists are working on a vaccine, but that will take several months, many months, to develop a vaccine and test it. They’re working to develop therapeutic antiviral drugs. The scientific research is continuing.”

— Dr. William Schaffner