A worker disinfecting trains in South Korea, which has seen at least one case of 2019-nCoV.
A worker disinfecting trains in South Korea, which has seen at least one case of 2019-nCoV.
Photo: Getty Images

Federal health officials have identified a second U.S. case of the deadly new coronavirus that’s sent parts of China into lockdown, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday. While officials say that the risk to the U.S. from the virus remains low, the overall situation worldwide is set to get worse before it gets better.

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According to the CDC, the patient is a Chicago resident in her 60s who had returned from a trip to the Wuhan region of China—the epicenter of the outbreak, which seems to have begun last month—on January 13. The woman didn’t start to experience any symptoms such as fever until after a few days back home. She visited a doctor, and when her recent travel history was made apparent, she was sent to the hospital and kept isolated from others. The CDC then confirmed that she was infected with 2019-nCoV, a newly discovered member of the coronavirus family, related to the viruses that cause SARS and MERS.

In a press conference Friday, CDC and Illinois health officials said that the Chicago resident is in stable condition but remains isolated. They added that the woman did not travel with anyone else, nor did she have any contact with people on public transit or at other large venues prior to her hospitalization.

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Overall, the CDC and state health departments have investigated or are still investigating 62 people across 22 states at risk of having the virus, with 11 people so far ruled out as infected through testing. While China instituted a shutdown of travel in Wuhan and other areas (along with a Disneyland location) starting Wednesday, U.S. health officials believe more travel-related cases will likely emerge. The virus appears to have a two-week incubation period, meaning there’s still opportunity for someone to have contracted it and made it back to the U.S. while appearing healthy before the shutdown came into effect.

Worldwide, the current tally of reported 2019-nCoV cases has continued to climb. According to the governments of China and others, nearly 900 cases have been documented, with at least 26 dead as a result. Besides the U.S., a small number of cases have also been spotted in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand.

The virus is thought to have first emerged from animals, though experts have debated the culprit. A recent study that concluded it may have come from snakes has been disputed by other researchers. Some researchers have instead theorized it came from bats or birds.

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What isn’t in question is that the virus can spread between people. According to the World Health Organization, cases of human-to-human transmission have been limited to China alone, though some have been “fourth-generation” cases. In other words, people have gotten sick from someone else long removed from the original transmission from an animal.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization declined to declare the outbreak an international public health emergency but stressed that it was still a crisis in China and nearby countries and that the situation is capable of worsening further. And while the WHO lauded China for its early efforts in investigating and containing the outbreak (which included sharing the genetic sequence of the virus soon after it was unzipped), it also asked China for more cooperation and transparency with the WHO and others.

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Local outlets and dispatches from China have reported civil unrest from residents upset at the government’s attempts to censor social media surrounding the outbreak, and many residents have accused the government of downplaying the toll of the virus. Infamously, China was criticized for doing the same during the initial outbreak of SARS within its borders in 2002.

On the positive side of things, the virus still seems to be less potentially lethal than either SARS or MERS first were during their initial outbreaks. Many of the deaths reported so far have involved older people with underlying health problems. That said, about a quarter of reported cases have been considered severe, according to the WHO.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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