One on of the deadliest viruses ever identified – dubbed the “nightmare virus” by health officials – has been found to have reached a new continent.
The coronavirus – which has already claimed more than 900 lives worldwide, mostly in Saudi Arabia – has now been linked to death in St. Louis. Its victims have included a 69-year-old woman and a 23-year-old woman.
The virus, known as NCoV, was discovered in 2012 and has spread from South Asia through to Europe, killing at least 653 people, according to the World Health Organization. The virus’s spread may have been a result of poor hygiene in hospitals and migrant workers entering and returning to countries in the Middle East.
But the virus hasn’t been a killer here in the United States. NCoV does not have an easy transmission mechanism between people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the international focus on the coronavirus’s health impact – and any changes to the United States health system the virus might present – are likely to increase in light of its latest set of findings.
One major question the United States faces is how to protect its population from potential exposure to NCoV, given that so far infections have been confined to four Middle Eastern countries and parts of Europe, said Dr. Jonathan Ball, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. For now, it appears that only the NCoV family of viruses, none of which are transmitted between humans, has shown the ability to cause severe, life-threatening illness in Americans, said Ball, who is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I think a lot of people will be saying, ‘Holy crap, the world has become more confusing,’” Ball said.
Another question is whether the NCoV virus would actually pose a threat to the United States, said medical officials, because there is no known way to spread it domestically. “We are not worried about this virus here in the United States,” said Dr. David Couse, a deputy public health officer for St. Louis County.
Officials suspect it was contracted through contact with surfaces or by eating or drinking contaminated food, but it’s uncertain whether NCoV can be passed from one person to another through casual interactions, a common means of transmission among people with severe respiratory infections like influenza and HIV.
When people have had severe respiratory problems and been hospitalized in the U.S., and have returned to their hometowns with an infection, they’ve generally presented symptoms similar to flu or “not normal” cough and chest pain, said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC and World Health Organization are collaborating to identify other strains of NCoV, according to the CDC, as well as any geographic variations.
Unlike many diseases, NCoV appears to respond to standard treatment with antimalarial drugs and generally settles down after a few days in the hospital, Crouse said. But doctors also need to follow a protocol that involves keeping the virus isolated and under complete surveillance.
Even so, the CDC is not convinced NCoV poses a significant threat to the general public in the United States.
The disease’s American connection could be significant, however, because of the screening travelers must take during U.S. entry or asylum applications. The virus is in the Arabian peninsula and parts of Europe, yet many don’t report common things like diarrhea or flu symptoms when they’re sick.
Immigration officials are required to screen potential travelers with certain infectious diseases who have flown from the Middle East to the United States and no other country.