HHS Secretary Azar Issues Updates on Novel Coronavirus

January 29, 2020
Gianna Melillo
Gianna Melillo

Gianna is an assistant editor of The American Journal of Managed Care® (AJMC®). She has been working on AJMC® since 2019 and has a BA in philosophy and journalism & professional writing from The College of New Jersey.

In a press conference, HHS secretary Alex Azar provided updates on the US government’s response to the 2019 novel coronavirus. He was joined by the director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, MD; the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, MD; and the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, MD.

In a press conference, HHS Secretary Alex Azar provided updates on the US government’s response to the 2019 novel coronavirus. He was joined by the director of the CDC, Robert Redfield, MD; the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, MD; and the director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, MD.

Azar stressed that the US government is doing everything in its power to assist in halting the spread of the disease, developing treatments for those affected, and producing tests to confirm cases. The State Department, FDA, and NIH are all collaborating to ensure that necessary precautionary steps are being taken, Azar said.

The CDC first offered to send a team to China to assist with the outbreak on January 6, an offer the US has since reiterated, but the Chinese government has not authorized the visit. It was announced during the conference that World Health Organization (WHO) experts were granted permission to assist on the ground in China, although it was unclear whether CDC personnel would be part of the group.

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is WHO’s highest priority,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO. “We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership, and the transparency they have demonstrated, including sharing data and genetic sequence of the virus.”

The CDC does have personnel in China’s disease control office, STAT News reported.

“This is a major public health issue and we basically just need the best public health people we have in the world working on this right now,” Azar said.

Current assessments put the number of infected patients in China at over 4500, and there have been 5 confirmed cases in the US. In total, 18 countries have confirmed cases of the virus.

“Americans should know that this is a potentially very serious public health threat, but, at this point, Americans should not worry for their own safety,” Azar said. Of the 4500 cases confirmed in China, the country has reported more than 100 deaths. However, “the cases that have been identified skew severe, including patients who are older or have other illnesses. The mortality rate may drop over time as we identify a broader set of cases.”

The CDC recently announced it would begin screening travelers for the virus at 20 airports, up from an initial number of 5. “We are constantly preparing for the possibility that the situation could worsen, and your health and safety has been and will be our top priority,” Azar said.

Asymptomatic transmission, or the disease being passed by those who do not exhibit symptoms, is a top concern among Americans. “The one thing historically people need to realize is that even if there is asymptomatic transmission, in all the history of respiratory-borne illnesses of any type, asymptomatic transmission has never been the driver of outbreaks,” Fauci said.

Health officials say the situation is rapidly changing, and viruses are often unpredictable in nature, but there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission in the United States, and officials have advised travelers to avoid unnecessary trips to China.

The CDC also sent teams to work alongside state and local health departments in Arizona, Washington, California, and Illinois, the states where cases have been confirmed, Messionnier said. Contact investigations are being carried out whereby officials trace every person who came into direct contact with each of the 5 infected individuals in the US.

“Right now, we think the risk to the general public in the United States is low, but risk is dependent on exposure. While the vast majority of Americans will not have any exposure, some people will, and therefore will be at greater risk of infection,” Messionier said. “Every day we learn more and every day we assess to see if our guidance or our response can be improved.”

Chinese officials did release genetic sequencing of the virus online, which has led researchers to begin developing responses. Thus far, 3 countermeasures are being investigated: diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, according to Fauci. A rapid diagnostic test developed by the CDC is being used within the agency but has yet to be expanded outside the center.

“There is no proven therapy for coronavirus infection,” Fauci said. However, “there are now ongoing studies that have been initiated with the previous experience we had with SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and with MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome],” viral respiratory illnesses also of the coronavirus family that were first reported in the 2000s.

Although several drugs have been developed since the outbreaks of MERS and SARS, the efficacy of these treatments has not been proven. Fauci also notes that despite the first steps taken to develop a vaccine, at least 6 months must pass to screen the treatment before it enters a phase 2 trial.

“We made a phase 1 trial with SARS and we never had to use a vaccine, but nonetheless we are proceeding as if we will have to deploy a vaccine. In other words, we’re looking at the worst scenario, that this becomes a bigger outbreak,” he said.

HHS does not plan to declare a public health emergency in response to the outbreak but has allotted $105 million of funding to be directed to response efforts.

Throughout the rest of the world, markets have reacted to the outbreak with Asian markets opening “down Tuesday after the Lunar New Year holiday” and “markets in South Korea and Japan having dropped nearly 3 percent,” according to The Washington Post.

False information regarding treatment of the coronavirus spreading on Facebook, Google, and Twitter has hindered global efforts to manage the public’s reaction. “Seven organizations that partner with Facebook issued 9 fact checks in recent days, finding a wide array of coronavirus claims as false, including those peddling fake treatments,” the Post reported. “Facebook said it has labeled the inaccuracies and lowered their rank in users’ daily feeds.”