A highly respected team of scientists based in New York City are among the researchers playing a critical role in studying and hopefully helping Chinese officials contain the spread of a coronavirus outbreak that some say is on the verge of becoming a pandemic.
The Center for Infection and Immunity, which is located on three floors of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, is led by Dr. W. Ian Lipkin, a man who is known in his field as a "master virus hunter" for his speed and new methods of identifying new viruses. Since the epidemic, the group of between 50 to 60 researchers have been collaborating with their counterparts at Sun Yat-sen University in the Guangzhou region of China. Back in 2003 during the SARS epidemic, Dr. Lipkin and his team advised the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO). He was honored by the Chinese government for his contributions early last month.
Dr. Lipkin is currently working in China. Here in New York City, Dr. Nischay Mishra, a virologist and molecular biologist on Lipkin's team, has been providing Gothamist with regular updates on what they are doing, as well as their views of the updates coming out of China and from the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here are the most important takeaways of our latest conversation on Monday.
The death toll took a scary turn but scientists are focusing on the mortality rate.
On Monday the New York Times led their coronavirus live coverage with an alarming-sounding headline: "China Death Toll Is Greater Than in SARS Outbreak"
As of Sunday, WHO officials have reported that 316 people had died from the outbreak in China and one death in the Philippines. That means that the number of deaths from the new coronavirus has now exceeded that of SARS, another flu-like virus that struck China in 2002 and 2003.
But Dr. Mishra said that the important statistic is the mortality rate, which is 2 percent compared to 9.6 percent for SARS.
The Times story also noted that the number of people who have recovered in China has risen in recent days, which may also suggest that treatments are working.
The total number of cases has already well risen about the number of SARS cases, 5,327. As of Monday morning, there were more than 17,000 confirmed infections. Dr. Mishra said the total number is now likely to grow to more than 20,000.
Lipkin's team is working on a potentially groundbreaking test to detect the disease in asymptomatic patients.
Although the WHO recently reported that the main driver of transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus is individuals who are showing symptoms, the Times reported that anecdotal reports from China as well as a published study from Germany showed that asymptomatic people can also pass on the disease. Dr. Mishra argued that the WHO's data may not account for those people who are not even aware that they are experiencing symptoms, like fatigue, for instance. As a result, being able to test for the virus in those without symptoms is a key to containment, he said.
The test that Dr. Lipkin's team is developing would allow health officials not only to confirm whether a person has the Wuhan coronavirus, but it would also be able to identify and differentiate between other types of influenza viruses.
In the coming weeks, the team is preparing to initiate the process of implementing the test. If all goes well, it could be available for use by Chinese health officials within 30 to 45 days.
Currently all testing for symptomatic cases in the U.S. is being centrally handled by the CDC, which results in a longer wait time. As of Monday, New York City has three suspected cases that have been sent to the CDC for testing. The federal agency has said it is working on releasing a diagnostic test for local agencies to use but it is not clear when cities like New York can expect to get the test. UPDATE: During a press briefing on Monday, the CDC announced that the diagnostic test for states and international health partners could be available as early as the end of this week.
Don't pin your hopes on reported drug treatments in Washington and Thailand.
Recent stories coming from health officials in Washington state and Thailand have suggested that a treatment involving drugs developed for other diseases like Ebola and HIV may be successful in treating the Wuhan coronavirus. But Dr. Mishra said that vaccines must be specially created for the virus they are trying to combat. He added that while there may be a small number of cases where certain drug "cocktails" have proven effective, it is important to remember that they have not been tested on a wider number of people. "It has to be statistically proven," he told Gothamist.
Currently, the CDC has said that it is trying to grow the virus in hopes of developing a vaccine, but that process is expected to take at least a year, well after the epidemic is expected to be over.
Quarantining high-risk individuals is a good precaution, but it needs to be done right.
On Sunday, the federal government began subjecting American citizens who have been in China’s Hubei province, the source of the epidemic, in the last 14 days to a quarantine of up to two weeks. Military bases are expected to house such individuals. The CDC on Monday said that there are currently 195 people in federal quarantine, all in southern California.
Americans who have traveled to other parts of China are subject to self-quarantine following an entry screening at the airport.
Dr. Mishra applauded the policy as a good public health measure, but warned that those who are self-quarantining should be required to report their condition on a daily basis to health authorities. It can take only one person who defies the quarantine to infect another person, he said, adding, "The chain is as strong as the weakest link."
Finally, yes, the movie Contagion is an accurate portrayal of how scientists deal with global outbreaks.
If you recently watched or re-watched Steven Soderbergh's 2011 film Contagion about an apocalyptic scenario involving a pandemic originating from (yes, you guessed it) China, you are not alone. Last week, the thriller—which featured a star cast including Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law and Kate Winslet—became the No. 10 movie rental on iTunes.
Soderbergh and Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns had sought out Dr. Lipkin to serve as a technical advisor on the film. The research scientist named Ian, played by Elliot Gould, was based on Dr. Lipkin. (Fun fact: In the movie, Gould's character goes rogue and grows the virus despite being instructed by CDC officials to destroy his samples. On Monday, a Columbia spokesperson stressed that they "are *not* working with the Wuhan coronavirus.")
The film is scientifically accurate, according to Dr. Mishra, as Dr. Lipkin would not allow it to be anything less, he said.
Here's an excerpt on Columbia's website about the film:
Some of the scenes in Contagion reflect Dr. Lipkin’s vivid memories of Beijing when he assisted the World Health Organization and the Chinese Health Ministry manage the SARS outbreak in 2003. At risk on the frontlines of the epidemic, as public health professionals sometimes are, he became ill and was quarantined when he returned to the U.S. On the movie set, Dr. Lipkin shared his experience in China with Matt Damon, offering the actor insight into what it feels like to be behind glass and cut off from loved ons.
Dr. Lipkin also coached Contagion actors on the practices and process of scientific research. Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle visited the Center for Infection and Immunity to learn the mechanics of being a bench scientist, working with the lab’s equipment to do technical procedures. And Elliott Gould, who plays a research scientist named “Ian,” talked to Dr. Lipkin about the intellectual process of making a scientific breakthrough. Suggesting to the actor how to look through a microscope and reflect on what it reveals, “I told Elliott it’s important that you get this right, because you are playing me,” Dr. Lipkin recalls.
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