Professor says coronavirus is not nearly as severe outside China


Heather Wipfli, a preventive medicine and international relations professor, said much about the virus’ origin is still unknown. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

By discussing the public health crisis in communities affected by the coronavirus involving  limited resources, preventive medicine and international relations professor Heather Wipfli was able to delineate the differences between the outbreak situation in China compared to the U.S.  

More than 20 students attended Wednesday’s Global Policy Institute event to discuss the worldwide health implications of the outbreak and to receive updates on the epidemic event.

On Monday night, students believed the virus had spread to campus after the general manager of a nearby student housing complex sent a mass email to its residents claiming a student had contracted the illness. The University has since declared the claim false. 

Wipfli began the discussion by comparing the fatality rate and danger of the coronavirus to communicable diseases Ebola and rabies. According to Wipfli, the virus has a mortality rate of 2 to 3%, with no fatalities confirmed outside China. Wipfli explained how the situation in affected areas of China differs from U.S. cases. 

“[Wuhan] is an area of China that is impoverished, overrun health systems, overburdened and under-resourced,” said Wipfli, who has conducted research in global health policy and practices. “So probably lower [fatality rate] among well-treated, healthy population.” 

The World Health Organization requires that all countries report any novel disease within three days of receiving a positive laboratory test, a regulation the Chinese government has complied with, according to Wipfli.

Cecilia Pou, a sophomore majoring in international relations, asked why the virus rumors caused a widespread panic. 

“It fits very well into our stereotypes and Hollywood fears about global pandemics,” Wipfli said. “It has a lot of the characteristics of what could potentially be a really horrific outbreak.”

Wipfli said the lack of information about the virus’ effects has made some public health officials uneasy. She explained that the exact fatality rate, the origin of the outbreak and the time symptoms appeared in areas near Wuhan remain unknown. However, officials have confirmed that the coronavirus is spread before symptoms show, which makes the outbreak more difficult to control. 

“When you have these novel crazy diseases, that tells you that wherever this is happening the health system is broken, poverty is rampant [and the] people are doing risky behaviors,” Wipfli said. 

Thomas Kim, a senior majoring in international relations, asked whether the growing anti-vaccination movement will damage public health. Wipfli said the impact will be significant because public health and trust must unite in order to implement preventative measures. 

According to Wipfli, there is a 99% chance the coronavirus will be everywhere within one to two years and the outbreak will become as common as the flu. However, this does not mean individuals should not exercise caution. 

“[The health community] is not saying to relax and not worry about it,” Wipfli said. “They’re saying everyone should be doing surveillance, tracking carefully. Everybody needs to be doing their best to wash their hands.” 

Wipfli suggested growing supplies, skills and knowledge be established at state and national levels to prepare for future outbreaks. 

“We need to have at least a continental lab — a lab on every continent that’s able to test these nov el viruses — and also a team in place ready to respond urgently just to do a lot of capacity building in different regions,” Wipfli said. 

On an individual level, Wipfli recommended students practice good hygiene. Wipfli also debunked the common health belief of wearing a face mask to prevent contracting diseases, saying wearing a mask is only beneficial if you are currently sick. 

Matt Slade, a GPI fellow who hosted the event and a sophomore majoring in international relations, said he had been worried by the false report on Monday but that the discussion alleviated his fears.

“The biggest takeaway [from this discussion] is that [the coronavirus] is not a health issue — it’s more of a political issue,” Slade, said. “What we are seeing is not a virus that’s super dangerous or super deadly.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Matt Slade is a GPI fellow who hosted the event