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COVID-19: key developments for Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A collection of key developments in the fight against the Wuhan coronavirus (nCoV-2019), posted throughout the week for those who just want the signal and not the noise. If there’s something you think we should include, sound off in the comments thread attached to the post.

Visit our Wuhan coronavirus status page and learn how to prepare for possible spread to your area. Scenarios, shopping lists, background info, and everything else you need, all in one place.

Previously: The previous day’s key developments post is here.


[2:49 pm] A followup to yesterday’s story on an infected patient mistakenly let out of the hospital: it wasn’t a false positive on a test, but rather a sample labeling error.

[2:49 pm] Mobile World Congress 2020 is now canceled because of the outbreak.

[2:47 pm] This Senate hearing happened today, but I’ve not yet had a chance to watch all of it. Scott Gottleib, former FDA Commissioner, tries to sound the alarm, as usual. Unlike the press, he is very willing to openly entertain the notion that this virus could be quite deadly. He also talks about supply chain issues.

[2:46 pm] Beijing Pledges to Stabilize China’s Economy Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

[2:45 pm] Reporting from on the ground in Wuhan, the WSJ adds to the massive pile of evidence that China is systematically undercounting infections. At Outbreak’s Center, Wuhan Residents Question Accuracy of Virus Tests

[2:43 pm] A new Lancet study argues against the possibility of in utero transmission of the virus.

[2:41 pm] Singapore keeps finding new cases with no links to China or to previously known cases. And it’s in the 80’s there right now, which puts paid to the idea that we can rely on warmer summer temperatures to stop the virus.

As I said below, it’s possible (likely?) that the reason Singapore is finding all these new cases is that Singapore is looking aggressively, and the reason other countries are not finding them is that they are not looking aggressively.

[2:40 pm] A followup to yesterday’s Hong Kong apartment block story: How can the coronavirus spread through bathroom pipes? Experts are investigating in Hong Kong.

[2:37 pm] More on suspected airborne transmission of the virus, from a Chinese state media outlet that tells people to turn off the air conditioning if there are new cases found in their building.

For some English-language discussion of the idea that this virus could spread through the air, see this Newsweek piece.

[2:37 pm] Cities in Guangdong, China to allow temporary seizure of private properties to control spread of coronavirus

[2:31 pm] A very good piece on the testing shortage, and the hard truth that we just do not know how many cases of this there really are out there. For instance, we probably know about the now fifty-plus cases in Singapore precisely because Singapore has such an excellent healthcare system and is so on top of their surveillance and contact tracing game.

Anyway, here’s the intro:

The seeming precision of the global tallies of cases and deaths caused by the novel coronavirus now spreading from Wuhan, China belies an alarming fact. The world is in the dark about the epidemic’s real scale and speed, because existing tests have limited powers—and testing is far too spotty. “We are underestimating how common this infection is,” cautions Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust.

This sentiment is in line with what Prof. Neil Ferguson recently expressed in a BBC interview, which is that we’re probably “in the early phases of a global pandemic.”

I expect to see more “pandemic” talk in the coming days, and with it more reporting of only the very lowest fatality rate estimates, so that everyone’s expectations are set to “the flu season from hell” levels and not someting a lot worse, which is also still well within the range of possibilities.

[2:29 pm] A followup on the viral story of the supposed Tencent “leak of the real coronavirus numbers”: this is a pretty extensive attempt at a takedown of those numbers and anyone who uncritically reported them. Some will be convinced by it, and some won’t. I personally wouldn’t touch those Tencent numbers with a ten foot pole, mostly for the reasons mentioned in the article. Sure, China is suppressing the case and fatality numbers, but that doesn’t make this Tencent thing valid.

[2:22 pm] Helen Branswell’s latest: Understanding pandemics: What they mean, don’t mean, and what comes next with the coronavirus.

One of the things I found interesting about this piece is that it sticks very close to very lowest end of fatality rate estimates — i.e., some single-digit multiple of the flu’s fatality rate — and does not even try to contemplate what things would look like even in a Spanish-Flu-level scenario of a 2 percent fatality rate.

The strategy of painting a worst-case scenario as “like the worst flu season we’ve seen yet, but with a couple times more bodies” is very common in mainstream outlets right now. Nobody will even touch the higher CFR estimates — certainly nobody seriously entertains anything about 2 percent, and if the 2 percent number is mentioned it’s always with assurances that it will come way down as we discover milder cases.

Meanwhile, we continue to see pre-print papers come out with CFR estimates north of 2 percent. But even if these are covered, only the lowest end of whatever range they propose is mentioned.

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