Coronavirus '10 times deadlier than seasonal flu': US top infectious disease expert Fauci

A passenger arriving in Stockholm's Arlanda airport is greeted by signs advising travellers what to do if they show symptoms of infection by the new coronavirus after arriving in Sweden. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The coronavirus spreading across the globe is "10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu," the government's top infectious disease official told a House hearing, where he warned that the United States must take serious mitigation efforts now.

"Bottom line: It's going to get worse," National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

"If we don't do very serious mitigation now, what's going to happen is we're going to be weeks behind" in containing the spread.

Dr Fauci said the US must limit the influx of the virus from abroad and take steps to contain it domestically, including by restricting large gatherings such as sporting events.

He said a vaccine is still at least a year away. Responding to questions, Dr Fauci said he could not give a precise estimate of how many people in the US might get infected.

"It is going to be totally dependent on how we respond to it, so I can't give you a number," Dr Fauci said.

"If we are complacent and don't do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could be way up and be involved in many, many millions. But if we sought to contain, we could mitigate it."

The US now has more than 1,000 cases of confirmed infection by Covid-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, which also shows 29 deaths in the country.

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday (March 11) declared the outbreak a pandemic as cases outside China have risen 13-fold.

The coronavirus is starting to ripple across the economy. US stocks plunged after the WHO's declaration with the S&P 500 tumbling more than 4.5 per cent, wiping out Tuesday's rally.

Dr Fauci's warnings are a contrast to the message that has been delivered by US President Donald Trump, who has compared the virus in tweets and statements to the seasonal flu.

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On March 9, the president tweeted: "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

Mr Trump's advisers Kellyanne Conway and Larry Kudlow both have described the coronavirus outbreak as "contained". Congress has already passed about US$8 billion (S$11 billion) in emergency spending that includes provisions to help state and local governments prepare and to purchase tests, vaccines and therapies.

Mr Trump has yet to produce a plan he promised to deal with the economic impacts of the outbreak, and House Democrats are moving ahead with their own proposals.

The outbreak has exacerbated political friction in Washington.

At Wednesday's hearing Republicans accused Democrats of politicising the government's virus response by ignoring all the preparatory work the administration has done, including blocking some travel from China.

"They're accusing our president of failing us," said Representative Mark Green, a Republican from Tennessee.

Virginia Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly rejected the criticism, saying the administration put American lives at risk and "you can't cover that up".

Dr Robert Redfield, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said the US had moved aggressively, but he was sharply questioned about delays in developing and distributing coronavirus tests after a manufacturing problem with the first batch of kits.

Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi asked whether the person who oversaw the process with the first set of test kits was still in charge of the manufacturing process.

"This is currently under investigation at this point and I think I'm going to leave it there," Dr Redfield said, drawing a harsh response.

"You can't give us assurance that the person who bungled the production process hasn't been removed," Mr Krishnamoorthi said.

"Recovering from that misstep cost us precious weeks and now months, sir. Meanwhile the virus spread and people died. I respectfully disagree with your earlier characterisation that we had an aggressive response."

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