By Scott J. Becker, executive director, APHL
As news spreads of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) emerging in Wuhan, China, we at APHL are taking this threat seriously while also remaining calm and confident that our public health system is prepared. APHL has activated our incident command structure (ICS) to support our members and partners during the response.
Despite being a new respiratory virus strain, there is a familiarity that is reassuring to many of us in public health but can be unsettling to others. This new outbreak resembles SARS, MERS, H5N1 bird flu and other emerging respiratory diseases from the past. However, illness does not appear to be as severe as those previous viruses although our understanding of 2019-nCoV is still developing.
While there is a lot we don’t know about 2019-nCoV, this is what we do know about the outbreak response to prevent its spread:
- As the first 2019-nCoV patient was identified in the United States, our public health system worked. Efforts to disseminate information to the public and to health care providers led to the patient self-identifying and allowed his providers to quickly initiate screening, isolation and eventual diagnosis. The specimen was immediately sent to CDC for rapid testing and results were promptly reported.
- Public health laboratories are ready to process and ship specimens to CDC whose laboratory is currently the only one able to perform diagnostic testing in the US. CDC is working hard to develop and qualify a test that public health laboratories can use. Performing testing close to where the patient is being treated is ideal, but developing an effective test requires strong science and that takes time. We expect this new test to be ready for public health lab use in the coming weeks. CDC is already working closely with FDA to get an emergency use authorization (EUA) to deploy the test across the country in the event a US public health emergency is declared. (An EUA cannot be given until the US Secretary of Health and Human Services declares a public health emergency.)
- For all of the critical players in our public health system – public health laboratory scientists, epidemiologists, CDC, FDA, health care providers and others – this is all in a day’s work. Frequent preparedness training and routine outbreak responses ensure that when a new disease emerges, the public health system is ready.
An outbreak of a new virus like 2019-nCoV can sometimes stir up panic and fear. We understand why some feel that way, but we are also confident that the public health system is working to stop this virus just as it has done with many others. We hope that our confidence in their expertise and abilities is reassuring for you. It is not time to panic – it is time to wash those hands, catch your coughs and continue to be vigilant during this cold and flu season.
We will continue to update this post with more information as it becomes available.