The number of total cases worldwide now exceeds 6,000.
The world has never had more advanced medical science, but it’s also never been so interconnected. So what can be done to stop it from becoming a global epidemic?
“Life is of paramount importance. When an epidemic breaks out, a command is issued. It is our responsibility to prevent and control it,” he said, according to Chinese state media.
First thing’s first. How bad is it?
Although it’s scary to think of a deadly virus spreading, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of cases so far have not been fatal.
So how are doctors treating it?
There are no specific treatments for coronaviruses, which range from the common cold to SARS. But just like the common cold, doctors can treat the symptoms, said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonoses unit.
David Heymann, the WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment, said doctors would be making sure patients can breathe properly and give them life support if required. Aside from that, the benefit of keeping people in hospital would be isolating them from the general population, so they can’t infect others.
What else can doctors do?
The way to stop an outbreak is to work out who a patient has had contact with, and try to stop them from spreading the virus, Heymann said.
“By tracing contacts, identifying new cases, isolating new cases, you can interrupt transmission eventually,” he said, adding that was how the 2003 SARS outbreak was brought under control. “Those are the things you can do — clean up hospital practices, make sure that they’re done well so that you don’t transmit in hospitals, and at the same time, make sure that you’re tracing contacts and identifying all cases.”
What about travel bans?
In mainland China, isolation has been taken to another level.
Peter Daszak, president of non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, which researches emerging infectious diseases, hailed the move as “bold,” saying it was not without political risks but might be enough to help stop coronavirus spreading.
Others have cautioned that it may be unwise for logistical issues. Wuhan health authorities earlier said local hospitals are overwhelmed, and the city plans to build two more hospitals within days.
“The health risks for people in the city depends on how they’re closing it down,” said Heymann, referring to food and medical supplies. Even so, the move would hopefully decrease the number of cases that made it to other countries, he added.
What about vaccines?
But even if scientists do successfully develop a vaccine, it might not be ready in time to treat this outbreak.
Heymann, from the WHO, said it’s highly unlikely that any vaccines that come up for study during this outbreak would be available anytime soon.
“They’ll be available if this outbreak continues for any long period of time, but nobody knows what will happen to this outbreak,” Heymann said.
Even then, a vaccine can’t be used to treat people with the virus — it can only be given to people who haven’t already been exposed to it.
Should the WHO declare a global health emergency?
So far, the WHO has decided not to declare a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) — although Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific, warned “it may yet become one.”
Last week, the WHO said that while the outbreak was serious in China, it had not yet hit a global level. But the WHO may also be concerned about creating unnecessary panic.
“In some circles, the WHO is perceived to have overreacted to the epidemic, causing unnecessary panic on the international scene and putting unjustified barriers in the way of persons from ‘infected’ areas wishing to attend such events as business exhibitions or international sports activities,” the paper said.
So what can the public do? Are masks useful?
Masks are being used so widely in Hong Kong and mainland China that stocks are running low.
But it’s still unclear how the virus is spread, or whether masks would stop it, Heymann said.
“There’s no evidence that it’s circulating in a way that could prevent it,” he said. And even if the disease can spread through the air, masks might not be entirely effective. “Masks are very tricky to wear,” he added, explaining that if there is an air gap in the mask, it won’t work.
What else can be done?
Experts say there is one simple thing you can do: wash your hands.
Informing people about what to look out for is also vital, according to Heymann. If a person who is asymptomatic shows up in an airport, they may not be picked up by authorities who are only screening for fever.
“A border doesn’t stop infections, people can cross borders while they’re in the incubation period. So screening will pick out some, but it certainly won’t get others,” Heymann said.
“So what’s important at screening is to tell people, not only ‘we’re taking your temperature’. But giving them some kind of notification about where they go should they get a fever.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.