Officials say most Americans not at risk of coronavirus

Jan. 29, 2020

The top U.S. public health officials 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 U.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 January 6, and most recently reiterated the offer January 28.

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.

All officials at the press conference offered assurances about the U.S. 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 U.S. airports. Now 20—up from five—of the nation's largest and busiest airports will practice enhanced screening of passengers traveling from China. The CDC also issued a level 3 travel advisory, suggesting U.S. 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 U.S. has the tools to help combat the new coronavirus outbreak.

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.

In related news, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced 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.

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