Jan 28 2020

New Coronavirus Facts and Misinformation

It’s important to properly calibrate your concern over new potential threats. Fear is an adaptive trait that focuses our attention and energy on avoiding danger. Too little fear, and we walk into avoidable risk; too much, and we waste time and energy without reason, perhaps even causing unnecessary harm. Proper calibration requires an objective, factual, and balanced approach. Keep that in mind when reading stories and fearmongering about the new Wuhan Coronavirus.

First, the genuine concern – this is a legitimate outbreak of a new virus that causes pneumonia and is potentially fatal. This is now the 7th Coronavirus found to infect humans. Four strains cause essentially common cold, a benign upper respiratory infection. Two previously discovered viruses cause more severe illness, the SARS and MERS viruses. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) started in 2002 in China and over 2003 the epidemic resulted in thousands of cases and 774 confirmed deaths. MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) first appeared in 2012, in the Arabian Peninsula and has a 30-40% mortality rate. These are serious infections. So it is reasonable to be concerned about the third serious Coronavirus infection. What do we know so far?

The numbers are moving fast, but as of right now there are 4,500 confirmed cases and 106 deaths. All the deaths are in China, there are sporadic cases outside of China (all imported from China) but so far no person-to-person spread outside of China. The virus likely originated from the combination of a bat strain of Coronavirus and an unknown strain, but came to humans through contact with snakes. The infection causes a severe viral pneumonia. Most of the fatalities so far have been elderly, but at least one otherwise young and healthy individual has died from the infection. Infection is spread through water droplets (sneezing and coughing). It is still unclear, with conflicting reports, whether or not the virus is contagious before symptoms present (which would be bad) but the CDC is currently denying this.

So this is a fast-moving outbreak, rapidly evolving into an epidemic. Researchers have been working since 2003 on a SARS vaccine, which is still in clinical trials due to safety issues, and so it is unclear if and when we may have a vaccine effective against the current strain. China is trying to contain the outbreak, shutting down travel to the Hubei province and asking people to wear masks, while other countries are issuing travel warnings to China.

This is where the facts end and speculation by experts in epidemiology and communicable diseases begins. Some experts believe that the real number of cases currently is somewhere between 60,000-200,000 – the confirmed cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Others believe that it is already too late to contain the virus, and we are headed for a worldwide pandemic. Still others warn that the Wuhan Coronavirus may become endemic in the human population, like the flu, and therefore something we are just going to have to live with. None of these are certain, but they are informed expert opinion.

So this is a legitimate concern that requires action. The CDC, WHO and Chinese authorities are keeping a close eye on the outbreak and taking steps. That is appropriate, although there is always debate in real time about exactly how strict and aggressive the steps should be. For the individual within Hubei and China more broadly, there is reason to take significant precautions – limit exposure to others, wear a face mask consistently and properly (yes, these actually do work), practice good hygiene, and avoid contact with those who are symptomatic. Also – avoid travel if at all possible until the outbreak is over.

Outside of China there is currently no need to change behavior, except reconsider traveling to China if that was in your plans.

The misinformation so far is largely coming from known pseudoscience and conspiracy websites. The con-artists and deluded tend to come out of the woodwork with any such story, promoting quack cures, ideologies, and conspiracy theories. As Vice reports:

“It’s over for humanity,” Mike Adams declared the other day. The self-proclaimed Health Ranger and one of the internet’s more prolific conspiracy-mongers offered a dark prophecy. “There will only be lone survivors. The strategy must now shift. You can be a survivor. We can help you survive, the information here at Infowars and what I do.”


On a recent afternoon, in a change of venue, he was calmly predicting the end of humanity on InfoWars’ live webcast, where he shared a segment with its founder, Alex Jones. Over the course of an interminable two hours or so, the two men had a couple of aims: to lavish each other with mutual praise over their bravery against the Deep State and, more importantly, to foment as much fear and panic as possible about the coronavirus, the epidemic which originated in Wuhan, China and has, to date, killed at least 81 people.

Part of the point of such conspiracy mongering is to present yourself as the sole source of reliable news. You cannot believe anyone else, because they are part of the deep state cover up. Of course, they are selling a fantasy, but for those who buy into the fantasy, they are hooked to the one news source telling “the truth.” Jones of InfoWars, of course, always attaches his stories to his products – the world is going to end, so stock up on all this survivalist gear. This misinformation can be extremely dangerous. Adams is warning people against any potential Coronavirus vaccine that may come out, arguing that it will just be a way to spread the virus.

This is why it is important to get out real news and information, to hopefully at least drown out the nonsense to some degree. But still, a certain amount of harm will be caused by the blatant misinformation coming from these alternative medicine and conspiracy sites.

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