Like casualty counts from natural disasters, tracking a disease is a fast-moving target. But with nine deaths attributed to the new coronavirus traced to the Chinese city of Wuhan and 440 confirmed infections, it's safe to say the new disease is as catchy as a bad pop tune.
We have a catchy name for the disease here in Hong Kong, too. WARS, or Wuhan Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is as good a name as any, certainly less of a mouthful than its official designation, "Novel Coronavirus 2019-nCoV." WARS echoes the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that caused a panic here in 2002 and early 2003.
I shouldn't make light of the situation, which has the potential to become very serious. But as someone who lived through SARS here in Hong Kong and knows a Westerner who survived a full-blown case, I'll try to make sense of the situation.
WARS has so far been underestimated in China. Indeed, Wang Guangfa, a health official in Beijing who earlier this month downplayed its effects, has now confirmed that he has caught the new virus. Wang, a first responder dispatched to Wuhan, said WARS was "preventable and controllable" and "less pathogenic" than SARS.
Wang helped combat SARS at Peking University First Hospital, where he's now the head of pulmonary medicine. On Tuesday, he confirmed he has caught WARS. "I was diagnosed and my condition is fine," he said on Chinese TV.
Hong Kong on Wednesday reported its first WARS case, a Wuhan citizen who arrived by high-speed rail from the city. He was picked up with a high-grade fever when he arrived in Hong Kong. Most Chinese travel ports are now using infrared thermometers.
WARS and SARS share a common ancestor, according to Chinese officials. The two viruses are linked to HKU9-1, a virus found in fruit bats. It's thought SARS leapt to other species such as civet cats, which can be found in some Chinese animal markets. WARS has been traced to a now-shuttered Wuhan "wet market" selling live animals. So it seems likely the bat virus made another species leap, as yet unknown.
The first patients may have contracted the virus from close animal contact, eating infected animals or contacting their body fluids. The risk of person-to-person transmission must now be assessed with WARS. But one Chinese patient is thought to have infected 14 health care workers.
The first U.S. case, in Washington state near Seattle, comes in a patient who had traveled to Wuhan but who says he didn't visit any live-animal markets or come into contact with anyone he knew was sick. He wasn't sick when he flew back from Wuhan but reported his travels and symptoms when he fell ill back home.
Authorities are now scrambling to find folks who were his fellow passengers. All travelers heading from Wuhan into the United States are now being routed through one of five airports: Kennedy International in New York; San Francisco International; Los Angeles International; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International; and Chicago O'Hare International.
What is the likely path of the current outbreak? We can look for guidance to SARS and to the MERS outbreak in 2012, traced to bats that likely infected camels in Saudi Arabia.
All three at first produce flu-like symptoms, which can raise the level of panic since a lot of people are still going to get actual flu. A cough and shortness of breath developed in the second week with SARS and MERS. Then the diseases progressed into breathing problems, pneumonia, and ultimately potential respiratory failure, particularly if you're elderly or already compromised in terms of immunity.
SARS ultimately killed 813 people. Of those, 90% were in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. But 38 people died in Canada and 32 in Singapore, both countries with hefty expat Chinese populations, and a handful in six other nations. Human-to-human transmission happened after infected individuals arrived in Hong Kong, Taipei, Toronto and Hanoi.
The WARS virus targets the same ACE2 human protein as SARS, according to a scientific team in China. It was thought to be less virulent than SARS in its genes - the two share only around 75% of the same structure - but is very effective at binding to that protein and is likely to be highly infectious.
The severity of the WARS virus itself and the risk of transmission were likely underestimated by Chinese scientists at first. Couple that with the knee-jerk cover-up response from local government officials, who do not like passing bad news up the chain of command, and it appears that we're dealing with a bigger threat than Chinese officials first admitted.
SARS hit in November 2002, but it was contained by July 2003. Largely thanks to the outbreak, China's economic growth temporarily slowed by two entire percentage points, from a year-on-year rate of 11.1% in the first quarter of 2003 to 9.1% in the second quarter. By the third quarter it was back to 10.0%.
The services sector bore the brunt of the economic damage. Transportation companies were hit the hardest, followed by hotels and restaurants. The impact on manufacturing, exports and capital investment was far less pronounced.
When it comes to currency, the Chinese yuan suffered during SARS but the Korean won also came under pressure. The Thai baht would likely be vulnerable during the current outbreak because the currency is extremely strong and a Thai case of WARS is already reported. Thailand is the No. 1 travel destination for Chinese international tourists.
WARS is hitting right as the largest human event on the planet is occurring, with Lunar New Year on Saturday. The first case was reported on Dec. 12, and Chinese authorities reported the new pneumonia to the World Health Organization on Dec 31.
SARS was first reported in mid-November 2002 and got widespread coverage in late December, before the Lunar New Year on Feb. 1, 2003. Between Feb. 10 and April 23 of that year, Asian shares sold off by 3.4%, as measured by the MSCI Asia ex-Japan index. Hong Kong stocks led the selloff, the Hang Seng index falling 7.7%. Shares declined more modestly in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore.
Nomura, which has been running the numbers, notes that Chinese shares surprisingly gained 4.2% during that period. But the Shanghai market sold off rapidly after China said it had 339 cases of SARS rather than the 37 it had previously reported.
Beware of false rallies if it appears WARS is being won. In 2003, there was a rally from April 7, when U.S. authorities said infections were beginning to stabilize, through April 18, when China said it had been misreporting cases and global daily infections began to rise again. Stocks and currencies quickly lost all that ground.
If handled effectively, WARS should have an impact of no longer than two or three quarters. During that period, Asian currencies and shares are likely to sell off, though I see stocks here have been strong, strangely, here on Wednesday. But beware false dawns. We can't win WARS unless we know what we're fighting.