University reacts to novel coronavirus outbreak and potential infections

Tuesday, January 28, 2020 - 5:06pm

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Design by Michelle Fan

 

The University of Michigan issued a travel restriction for all travel to China Monday afternoon following the outbreak of coronavirus, a rapidly spreading new virus. With the warning, undergraduate students are not permitted to continue with University-affiliated travel to China, and graduate students may only travel with a University-approved safety plan.

The novel coronavirus strain, also known as the Wuhan coronavirus, transmits quickly. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms for the Wuhan coronavirus can present themselves between two and 14 days after exposure and include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

The virus broke out in December 2019 in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, and the exact number of cases has not been confirmed. The Chinese government has locked down several cities including Wuhan, prohibiting travel into or out of quarantined destinations.  

There are multiple international confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus, including a few in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, all coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transferred between humans and animals. The Wuhan coronavirus has not previously been identified in humans, and many of the people who have been infected frequented the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the city.

Mary Gallagher, political science professor and director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, said there was an apparent initial effort on the part of the local Wuhan government to cover up the severity of the outbreak. Since the central Chinese government was made aware of the situation, its response has been efficient and effective, especially compared to their actions in 2003 after the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.

“The government in Wuhan seemed reluctant to alert the central authorities and public health authorities to the severity of the breakout in Wuhan and the evidence for human to human transmission,” Gallagher said. “The Chinese central government now has reacted very aggressively to do some things that seem amazing and excellent, like building a bunch of hospitals as quickly as they can and decoding the genomic structure of the virus.”

Gallagher also commented on the quarantine of Wuhan city and several others in province, noting potential shortcomings of this strategy. 

“The problem with the quarantine is that the quarantine comes after this period of local coverup and a huge exodus of people from Wuhan, partly probably because of the fear of the virus, but also because Chinese New Year was about to happen and people were going home to celebrate the holiday,” Gallagher said. “So, it’s not really clear to me that the quarantine is going to stop the virus from spreading.” 

Adam Lauring, an infectious disease specialist at Michigan Medicine, described the likely origin of the virus in humans as well as likely first treatment steps.

“Based on the sequences that are out now and have been analyzed, there was probably one animal to human spillover event that happened probably in late November or early December, and since then the virus has been spreading from person to person,” Lauring said. “The first thing they’re probably doing is a lot of what we call ‘supportive care.’ The biggest issue is that it apparently causes a bad pneumonia or lung infection, and the thing that most people would be needing would be help with their breathing.”

On Monday, University students received an email from the University Health Service concerning the novel coronavirus.

In the email, Preeti Malani, University of Michigan Chief Health Officer, wrote the University is closely monitoring the situation and the risk is minimal at this time. 

“While there are some confirmed cases in the U.S., no cases have been confirmed in Michigan,” Malani wrote. “Of the four potential cases in southeast Michigan that were recently submitted for testing, three have come back negative for the virus. University officials are monitoring the remaining case closely in partnership with local and state public health experts. At this time, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general public in the U.S. is considered low.”

In his email to the University, Malani wrote there are no confirmed cases of the virus in Michigan and out of three potential cases sent for testing, three came back negative. 

Lauring elaborated, saying hospitals and clinics in the University area are employing careful screening procedures to ensure that any potential cases are recognized and the threat of infection is minimized.

“People at the medical center and clinics, everyone’s being screened (who has) traveled in the past few weeks to try and identify people who might be at risk or might have an illness that could be due to the coronavirus,” Lauring said. “That is probably the biggest thing that’s going on here is just making sure that potential cases are evaluated and making sure that we’re not missing anyone that could potentially bring the virus here or spread it here.”

The University of Michigan has contacted all travelers registered to be in China or traveling there in the upcoming months and designated a University travel warning for China, in addition to convening a team of experts to monitor new developments. The same post clarified that currently there are no University-registered travelers going to the Hubei province at this time. 

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen noted there are no University students currently in the province.

Michigan University Health Services has created an information page for the 2019 novel coronavirus containing general information about transmission as well as avoidance and risk. According to UHS, the Center for Disease Control has been monitoring the virus and do not see it as an active threat to the U.S.

The lack of knowledge about the coronavirus outbreak is the main reason there is currently no vaccine. As a result, the future risks associated with this particular strain remain ambiguous. Lauring said a vaccine could potentially be developed, but the analysis and testing required will require several months of research.

“We’re probably months away at least from a vaccine,” Lauring said. “There’s a number of what would be called platforms for coronavirus vaccines where people have tried to develop vaccines for other coronaviruses, so what they would do would be modifying those approaches specifically for this new virus.”

Michigan Medicine volunteer Natalie White, LSA sophomore, said she trusts clinics and hospitals around the country to contain the virus’s spread.

“In general, I haven’t seen enough cases to personally feel concerned about it,” White said. “I have a pretty strong faith in Michigan Medicine and a lot of the medical establishments across the country that it shouldn’t be a huge deal. I feel like some people definitely are getting a little bit of hysteria surrounding it.”

This story has been updated to reflect more recent information on the University's travel restriction to China.

Reporter Hannah Mackay can be reached at mackayh@umich.edu