Around the world and around the clock, scientists are trying to figure out what must be done to end the global health emergency unleashed by the new coronavirus. As the outbreak accelerates and spreads, dozens of countries have deployed increasingly stringent measures to try and contain the epidemic. Almost as quickly, in a herculean effort, an international network of researchers at data and wet laboratories has started gathering and analyzing data to unmask and disarm this perplexing new disease.
In magnitude, scale and velocity, 2019-nCoV is too big a problem for any one team to solve. On Monday, China recorded its largest single-day surge of deaths, at 97, pushing the total reported dead worldwide to 910, with more than 40,500 people infected on four continents. On Tuesday, I’m joining my fellow scientists at the World Health Organization headquarters for an urgent meeting to piece together, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, our findings so far. We need to get a clear view of the contagion and plug the holes in our understanding of the disease to inform public health decisions that affect hundreds of millions of lives. Science has a critical role to play in restoring calm.
Let’s start with what we know. The new coronavirus is a close cousin of viruses that infect bats. It jumped from an unconfirmed wild source (most likely bats) to an intermediate host, possibly pangolins or other small mammals, being sold as food at a market in Wuhan, a transport and commercial hub in central China. The infected people unknowingly spread it to others, setting off the outbreak’s deadly journey. We now estimate that it takes about five to six days — possibly upward of 14 days — for someone to show symptoms from when they become infected.