OPINION | How not to panic over the Wuhan virus

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IF you’re looking for something to be on the edge of your seat about, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will start testing people with flu symptoms in five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco) to see if the Wuhan coronavirus has slipped around our defenses and taken root in the U.S.

Or they could just wait for Bernie Sanders to come down with something. A 78-year-old man with a heart condition will be conducting five or six public events a day in coming weeks. In fact, he and his fellow Democratic candidates ought to be monitored as virtual blotters for any transmissible respiratory ailments that may be at large.

The relevant data points will have changed by the time you read this, but Iran discovered its first two cases last week and then announced both had died. Now four have died, likely indicating that Iran has hundreds of undiagnosed infections. A German study identified two symptomless carriers among 114 travelers repatriated from China. The chances that symptomless carriers are roaming Japan are not small after dozens of citizens were cleared to depart from a sloppily maintained quarantine aboard a cruise ship on which hundreds had been infected.

One of America’s foremost experts, the University of Minnesota’s Michael Osterholm, was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying the “next three weeks are going to be critical.”

The markets have figured it out, judging by Thursday’s and Friday’s sell-offs. Ditto officials around the world, including a French health minister and most of the top U.S. government experts. An effort is palpably afoot to let the public know that a global pandemic (which is not the same as the end of the world) may be in the offing.

Beijing will not be their role model. China had the advantage of the fact, or at least the theory, that a new virus originated in a specific place and might be contained there. Whether the premise was right is doubtful. If Beijing knew in December what it knows today, it might have followed the strategy most Western societies will follow: minimize the lockdowns and put more weight on warning citizens, especially the elderly, how to reduce their risk.

The operative strategy is called social distancing or social mitigation: Wash your hands. Avoid public places. Expect, in most cases, infection to be unpleasant but not debilitating.

A respiratory virus that can be spread easily, and by people who are not experiencing symptoms (if that’s the case here), is likely to spread globally. Trade has not stopped. Ships and planes are still manned by crews who must be in contact with people at both ends. Screening of travelers based on whether they have been in China is running out

Governments are starting to use the word pandemic so publics can be ready to protect themselves of usefulness in countries that have locally generated transmission. Happily for the part of the world in which spring is looming, even a few weeks of delay might have considerable payoff if this virus, like other respiratory viruses, spreads less easily in warmer and more humid weather.

The behavior of the Wuhan virus remains subject to conflicting reports. Transmission is not well understood. The reported death rate of roughly 2%, as every outside authority has noted, is likely inflated by China’s inability to diagnose and count thousands of mild cases. In the U.S., hospitals are gearing up for a possible influx of patients. If Americans keep their heads and go about their business while respecting the fact that an especially tricky flu (though it isn’t actually influenza) is in their midst, the country will be fine. Covid-19, to give the disease its new proper name, is one more of life’s hazards that capable adults should be able to manage.

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