With Spread All but Certain, Nations Gird for Coronavirus Impact

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The coronavirus epidemic continued to spread beyond China’s borders this week, with cases spiking in South Korea, Iran, and Italy — and new signs that outbreaks are all but inevitable in other countries, including the United States. “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but more really a question of when it will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters earlier this week.

With a mass-market vaccine for the new virus likely at least a year away, public health officials are left to weigh options for slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which emerged in the city of Wuhan, China last December and has since infected more than 83,000 people, leading to more than 2,800 deaths. So far, those numbers are much smaller than the impact of a typical flu season: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the flu has infected approximately 29 million people in the United States alone this season, killing 16,000. But the coronavirus is new, its mortality rate appears to be somewhat higher, and the specifics of its transmission — and possible treatment — are still murky. 

Amid that mixture of uncertainty, risk, and fear, governments have to consider the potential benefits of epidemiological interventions against the costs of disrupting daily life. Already, some have erred on the side of disruption, even before a major outbreak becomes apparent: In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced this week that the government would close the nation’s schools for around a month, a move that will affect millions of students and their families, and that may reflect, in part, anxieties about the status of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo. (While children appear to be largely impervious to the worst effects of the COVID-19 virus, schools may be key nodes for its transmission and spread.)

In the United States, public health officials — the doctors and epidemiologists of the CDC, as well as the leaders of more than 2,600 state, local, and tribal health departments — could soon face key decisions about how much to intervene in public life. Possibilities include school closures, as well as shutting down workplaces and cancelling large public events. Among other things, their task involves striking a delicate balance between responsible risk communication and the incitement of fear. “Disruption to everyday life might be severe,” Messonnier said.

Whether or not American officials will effectively prepare the nation remained an open question by week’s end, as President Donald J. Trump on Wednesday appointed his vice president, Mike Pence, to spearhead the government’s response to the looming crisis. Critics immediately pointed out that as governor of Indiana, Pence — who has no medical background — presided over a spike in HIV infections in that state. The crisis was exacerbated in part, studies have suggested, because Pence initially objected on religious grounds to providing clean needles to drug users.

That same day, a whistleblower with the Department of Health and Human Services filed a complaint, alleging that health care workers who interacted with quarantined patients evacuated from Wuhan lacked proper protective gear or training.

On Thursday, the White House directed all federal public health officials to cease making public statements on the coronavirus outbreak until those statements had been cleared by Pence’s office.

Also in the news:

• Renowned NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson passed away on Monday at the age of 101. Johnson worked on the calculations that helped put Apollo’s Lunar Lander on the moon in 1969, and she was one of the first African American women to work as a NASA scientist. The actor Taraji P. Henson portrayed her in the Oscar-nominated 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” Johnson first began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics — NASA’s predecessor — at Langley Laboratory in 1953, and she was the first woman in NASA’s Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report, working with engineer Ted Skopinski to detail the equations describing an orbital spaceflight. “Johnson helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. (NBC News)

• A study published this week in the journal Current Biology identifies a link between sunspots — dark blotches on the sun’s surface indicative of solar storms — and whale strandings. The research team, which included several biologists and an astronomer, compared National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records of gray whale strandings with the regular 11-year oscillation cycle of sunspots, finding that the number of strandings correlates with the number of sunspots. Through a little-understood process, whales use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate the oceans, and it’s possible that solar radio frequency noise, which increases during solar storms, could be interfering with whatever mechanism whales use to sense magnetism. (The New York Times)

• In March 2018, Walter Huang, an engineer at Apple, was driving his Tesla Model X on autopilot when it crashed into a concrete barrier, killing him. After a two-year long investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday declared that both the driver and car manufacturer were to blame. Huang was apparently playing video games on his phone when the accident occurred. Huang had removed his hands from the steering wheel, which isn’t allowed during Tesla’s “Autopilot” mode, despite the name. According to the NTSB, however, Tesla’s software should have deactivated the semi-autonomous steering, rather than just warning Huang to pay attention. There’s evidence that many Tesla drivers abuse the semi-autopilot setting by sleeping, texting, and playing video games. Some owners even use online forums to discuss how to make the software think they’re holding the steering wheel. The NTSB report includes recommendations for all future passenger vehicles to be equipped with a driver monitoring system that meets new safety standards. (NPR)

• A newly published survey of hundreds of bird species in India — the country’s first comprehensive assessment — reveals that the populations of many species are in sharp decline. The primary culprits are habitat destruction, hunting, the pet trade and, researchers say, some environmental changes that appear to be linked to climate change. The researchers — drawn from Indian government and conservation groups — analyzed millions of observations from bird watchers recorded in the global database, eBird. Based on changes in the frequency of sightings, they calculated that more than half the species had declined since the year 2000, with an even more severe drop in the last five years. The losses were especially acute in raptors, such as vultures, and in migratory shorebirds, such as gulls and sandpipers. But some species, such as the house sparrow, are holding their own in India, with shrinking populations in cities but success in more rural areas. (Nature)

• A series of papers published this week offered the first detailed analysis of “Marsquakes” — seismic activity on Mars similar to earthquakes — detected by a robotic lander designed to study the red planet’s deep interior. Since landing on Mars in November 2018, NASA’s InSight lander has been taking geophysical measurements and providing researchers with information about Mars’ geological structure and processes. To date, InSight has detected 450 Marsquakes across the planet. There is no discernible pattern to the quakes, though there has been an increase in low-frequency quakes since early in the mission. All the quakes are considered low magnitude, with the strongest registering between magnitudes 3 and 4 on the Richter scale. Mars does not have tectonic plates, and the quakes occur at a greater depth than do earthquakes, so the surface motion created on Mars by its seismic activity is faint. But an analysis of the seismic waves registered that the upper part of the Martian crust, its top 6 miles below the surface, is “pretty broken up,” seemingly due to quake activity.  “We’ve been planning this mission for the last ten years, so it’s been a long road to get these results,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator. (CNN)

• Over the past two decades, deaths from opioid overdoses in the United States have risen steadily, with prescription drugs playing a major role in the crisis. While public health officials have employed a variety of strategies to combat the problem, one county in rural Tennessee is taking a novel approach: teaching children and teenagers to respond to overdoses in their communities by administering Narcan, an opioid overdose reversal drug. Despite pushback from residents, school board members, and police officers who argue that the training is inappropriate for children, Carter County’s drug prevention coalition has worked with some 600 students, some as young as six, over the past three years, showing them how to use the nasal spray when they detect signs of an overdose. Each participant is sent home with their own supply — and coalition director Jillian Reece says at least 100 have come back to request more. “Lots of people say children don’t need to think about these things,” Reece told The New York Times. “But I’d rather a kid should go through the trauma of giving Narcan than see their parent die.” (The New York Times)

• And finally: Stuntman, amateur rocketeer, and professed flat earther Michael Hughes — known to his fans as “Mad” Mike — died last Saturday when his homemade rocket crashed in California’s Mojave Desert. According to Discovery, who sent a crew to film the stunt for their new Science Channel television series “Homemade Astronauts,” Hughes planned to launch himself 5,000 feet into the air. His ultimate goal was to cross the Kármán line — one definition of the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. But as can be seen in a video posted by freelance journalist Justin Chapman, a parachute tore away from the steam-powered rocket seconds after it launched, sending the craft on a short arc towards the ground. Though Hughes had on several occasions said his rocketry was intended to provide evidence in support of the conspiracy theory that the Earth is flat, some of his associates say it was all an act to garner publicity for his stunt work. Discovery has not clarified whether Hughes’ beliefs about the Earth’s shape, real or fabricated, would have been included in the astronauts show, or if the network would have taken any measures to avoid promoting an unscientific theory — not to mention extremely dangerous homemade rocketry stunts — on the Science Channel. (The Washington Post)


 “Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.

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Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Wired, Salon, Slate, Pacific Standard, the Daily Beast, and The Washington Post, among other publications.