By Drew Loughlin ‘23
As Jack Dougherty ’21 ate lunch with his friends at the Den, he picked up his phone and saw an alarming text: the first case of the deadly coronavirus in the United States had just been discovered – at Davidson College.
Everyone at the table immediately recognized the “headline” as a prank and burst into laughter. As Dougherty recalls: “It kind of speaks to the American take on things. People have kind of seen it as a joke.”
The lighthearted attitude of many Davidson students belies the severity of the epidemic that began in central China.
The virus, believed to have originated with contaminated animals at a seafood market in Wuhan, was initially considered a type of pneumonia before becoming officially recognized as the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in December. By Sunday, according to tracking by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, 43,143 people had been infected, including 13 in the United States. Since the outbreak, 1,018 people have died.
The current coronavirus strand appears to be particularly serious, according to Davidson biology professor Dr. Dave Wessner, who studied coronaviruses as part of his post-doctoral research at the U.S. Navy Medical Center.
“It’s an issue that we should certainly be keeping our eye on,” he asserted.
Dr. Wessner connected the current outbreak to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that spread through China in 2002-2003. Though the current fatality rate of 2% is still smaller than SARS’s 10% rate, Dr. Wessner warned that the virus is extremely contagious.
“It appears to spread much more easily than SARS did,” Wessner said. “Even if the case-to-fatality ratio is fairly low, but millions of people get infected, it’s a problem.”
For River Meng ’23, the outbreak brings back anxious memories of stories about the SARS crisis. When he returned home to Beijing for winter break, Meng said, everyone was nervous, despite being 600 miles from the epidemic center in Wuhan.
“People are kind of worried because the SARS literally gave people trauma,” said Meng explaining that at the height of the SARS outbreak people were too afraid to even leave their homes — something he saw happening again over break.
The Chinese government is stepping up emergency measures to contain the spread of the disease, building a massive hospital in the quarantined city of Wuhan and attempting to shut off the entire province of Hubei, which has been hit hardest by the epidemic.
However, quarantines alone may not prove effective, Dr. Wessner cautions, since the coronavirus appears to spread through aerosol transmission like the common cold; coughs and sneezes send infectious particles into the air, which in turn are inhaled by other people.
“There is probably no level of government intervention that is going to prevent it from spreading,” he noted.
In China and much of Asia, people are tracking the death toll and stocking up on medical face masks, which are in short supply. The coronavirus has led to increased demand for protective masks and worldwide shortages.
Jeremy Chan ’23 recently sent 300 masks to his family in Hong Kong, where finding them has become increasingly difficult.
“Every night, outside of pharmacies, you see at least hundreds, or even sometimes thousands, of people lining up overnight to get maybe one box of masks,” he said.
However, it is highly unlikely that Davidson students would ever need to buy masks for themselves. Even though much about the novel coronavirus is still unknown, researchers believe it is likely the disease will die out in the coming months, due to either warmer temperatures or excessive mutations.
A more urgent problem for the Davidson campus may be the media hype and distorted rumors about the coronavirus. Apart from inducing unfounded panic, sensational reports can influence the way people see other students, especially international students, a possibility Chan mentioned. As although, he felt that his treatment at Davidson had not changed, he did indicate that he had heard from people that it was different in areas with larger Asian populations.
“In California or New York or Seattle, I have heard there are cases there, and people are a bit worried over there.”
Dr. Wessner agrees, and even went a step further, comparing the coverage to that during the initial outbreak of the HIV virus in the early 1980s.
“I think, as we see so often, it’s demonizing some ‘other’ people,” he lamented.