Anthony Fauci Addresses Coronavirus

Jan. 30, 2020

The annual ASM Biothreats conference convened Jan. 28-30. Anthony Fauci spoke at the Plenary Session “Biothreats: How Prepared are We?” in his first public address about the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV2019). The following is a summary of his talk, titled “Coronavirus Infections: More than Just the Common Cold.”
Eighteen years ago, the world experienced an unusual outbreak involving a new respiratory disease. Named for the pathology of the disease it caused, Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (SARS-CoV) was eventually discovered as a new human pathogenic virus. Transparency was an issue as SARS cases mounted and the Chinese government tried to muffle the news (an issue that has been fortunately corrected with the nCoV2019 response). The local outbreak quickly became an international epidemic, thanks in part to global air travel. Panic from rumor and misinformation hurt people, communities, and the economy.
Infection control measures eventually brought the outbreak to an end. Twenty months after the SARS-CoV was sequenced, Phase I trials were already underway for a new SARS-CoV vaccine. At that time, this represented as the fastest turnaround time from microorganism identification to vaccine trial in people.
In 2012, a similar worldwide incident occurred. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) also caused respiratory disease, traced to camels (which had acquired the virus from bats). This time, viral infection was associated with a higher case fatality rate. Unlike SARS, MERS has not disappeared and cases continue to occasionally reemerge. When not properly recognized, epidemics can crop up outside of the Middle East, as happened in South Korea in 2015.
Now the world is experiencing an outbreak from a third coronavirus, named 2019 Novel Coronavirus (though this name will certainly change as more is learned about the disease it causes). At first, cases were thought to have occurred from exposure in a fish market. We now know there were earlier cases and the market had simply provided amplification based on a crowded market.
Who is getting sick with nCoV2019? The disease is one predominantly observed in elderly, older persons. Only 2% of cases are young; only 25% of recognized cases have severe disease. The take-home message is that nCoV2019 is a very different case than with SARS.
Unfortunately, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time for China. The Lunar New Year is the largest mass transit event of people in the world every year. The country is trying to control viral transmission via quarantine, but with varying success.
After years of talk of a universal flu vaccine, it may be time to start talking about other universal vaccines—such as one for coronaviruses. With 3 outbreaks in 18 years, coronaviruses and the diseases they cause are not going away. Barney Graham of the NIH is leading the efforts to make a vaccine for the current outbreak.

The current nCoV2019 outbreak is an evolving problem, and events will change quickly in coming days, months and years. Stay up to date at ASM’s Coronavirus Resource page.

Author: Julie Wolf

Julie Wolf
Dr. Julie Wolf is in science communications at Indie Bio, and was a former ASM employee. Follow Julie on Twitter for more ASM and microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.