"Thermonuclear, Pandemic-Level Bad" - Harvard Epidemiologist Warns Viral Outbreak Might Get A Lot Worse

As we've stepped up our coverage of the nCoV coronavirus outbreak over the past week, some on Twitter have published what we feel are exaggerated criticisms accusing us of fearmongering.

While we understand that the information we've shared can be distressing, we'd like to take a moment to remind readers that all of the information and research we have cited is legitimate, having originally been conducted by credible epidemiologists, like the UK's Jonathan Read. The fact is, the Chinese government hasn't been nearly as "transparent" as it promised, and it seems like the more we learn about the true scope of this outbreak, the more concerned we become.

The reality is that - as the Architect told Neo in "The Matrix: Reloaded" - denial is the most predictable of human responses. And while the world's public health authorities certainly still have time to get their arms around this outbreak before it becomes a massive, global pandemic with deadly consequences, the WHO's dithering response the other day (asserting that they don't yet have enough evidence of human-to-human secondary transmission to declare a global health emergency) certainly doesn't inspire confidence.

Now that we have that out of the way - let's move on to Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, a public health scientist on the faculty at Harvard.

A few days ago, Dr. Feigl-Ding tweeted that he was "really, deeply worried about this new coronavirus outbreak" because the virus seemed to have an"upward infection trajectory curve much steeper than SARS."

On Friday, the doctor, a well-respected epidemiologist who has worked as an advisor to the World Health Organization, tried his hand at a few projections based on an infection rate much higher than the RO (r-naught) rating of 1.4-2.5 recently estimated by the WHO. As we explained last night, when determining the infectious potential of a virus, arguably the most important variable is RO. This represents the average number of secondary cases resulting from every new infection in an entirely susceptible population.

Of course, government interventions and more vigilant hygiene practices once the public is aware of the threat will help lower the virus's r-naught variable. But remember, nCoV (the WHO's name for the virus) has already been quietly spreading among the people of Wuhan for weeks. And as Dr. Feigl-Ding explains, early evidence would suggest that nCoV is contagious before symptoms appear.

Last night, we published the findings of a team of UK epidemological researchers led by Jonathan Read. Read published a paper with four colleagues that estimates transmission parameters for the Wuhan coronavirus and calculates that the true R0 of 2019-nCoV is between 3.6-4.0 or roughly the same as SARS, and reaches a conclusion about spread of the coronavirus epidemic that is frankly terrifying. With an r-naught of 3.8, the virus could eventually cause hundreds of thousands of deaths in China alone.

In fact, it's not simply terrifying: With an r-naught of 3.8, this virus could be "thermonuclear, pandemic level bad."

As Dr. Feigl-Ding goes on to explain, using Read's findings as a jumping-off point, the 4,000 number being kicked around by some scientists as the true number of viral cases in Wuhan might be much too low. By early Feb., the doctor warns that nearly a quarter of a million Chinese could be infected.

To be sure, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. They are based on a set of assumptions that could change as scientists learn more about the virus. But as things stand, it appears that nCoV has a higher infectious potential than other coronaviruses, meaning it will be more difficult to contain. And the possibility of an unchecked pandemic on par with the 1918 Spanish flu shouldn't be ruled out yet.

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Even if we assume a much lower r-naught, like, say, 2.8, which is just above the upper band of the WHO's estimates, the results could still be "pretty bad".

Based on the above thread, the situation might seem especially dire. But as Dr. Feigl-Ding explains later, actions like China's mass quarantine of 46 million and other public-health precautions should help to contain the virus and reduce its ability to spread.

Now, Feigl-Ding's critics have pointed out that this is only one estimate, and that Read and his team have already revised down their r-naught calculation.

The doctor repeatedly said as much during the thread, but we suppose there's something about people tweeting in all-caps that some find extremely off-putting.

And of course this isn't 1918 - medical technology is far more advanced. In the event of a mass infection, a vaccine could be found to save the day. But that doesn't mean we should simply dismiss the more dire projections out of hand. This virus could still leave thousands dead before it peters out.