Coronavirus outbreak

Question of when, not if, US is hit by coronavirus pandemic

Pedestrians in the Chinatown area of Queens, New York. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is gearing up for the community spread of the coronavirus in the US, warning it is not a matter of if, but when and how many people in the countr
Pedestrians in the Chinatown area of Queens, New York. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is gearing up for the community spread of the coronavirus in the US, warning it is not a matter of if, but when and how many people in the country will have severe illnesses. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Fear of the Covid-19 coronavirus has surged worldwide as the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it is not a question of if, but when, the coronavirus becomes a pandemic in the United States and the government scrambles - late, experts said - to gear up.

Brazil confirmed its first case - a 61-year-old man in Sao Paulo who returned from a trip to Italy, where more than 350 people have been infected. Greece confirmed its first case yesterday and in France, two people have died from the virus.

In the US, Dr Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Centre for Immunisation and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters on Tuesday: "Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in the US."

"It's not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses," she said, adding that "disruption to everyday life may be severe".

There is currently no known community spread in the US, where the number of confirmed cases has been steady at 14 for some days - 12 from travel to China and two from person-to-person transmission.

An additional 39 Americans repatriated from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship are also in quarantine.

The CDC tweeted: "Currently there are very few cases of #COVID19 in the US... But as more countries see community spread, successful containment becomes harder and CDC is preparing for community spread in the US."

It added: "Now is the time for US businesses, hospitals and communities to begin preparing for the possible spread of #COVID19."

On Monday, the White House asked Congress for US$1.25 billion (S$1.75 billion) in emergency funding to buy protective gear and fund treatment and research on a vaccine, which experts said is likely several months away.

The administration also wants to divert US$535 million in emergency funding for prevention and treatment of Ebola in West Africa.

The Dow Jones sank 900 points on Tuesday after the CDC's warning, which came in the face of US President Donald Trump, who was in India, downplaying the risk saying the situation was "under control".

The S&P 500 closed 3 per cent lower.

The Trump administration has been cutting budgets for the CDC and pandemic preparedness, experts said. Outside the CDC, only about a dozen state and local laboratories are running tests because CDC kits had a faulty component.

Democratic Party Senator Richard Blumenthal tweeted he was "appalled and astonished" at the "inadequacy of preparedness and prevention".

Mr Trump took to Twitter to say: "CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world."

Experts disagreed.

"We're not prepared at all," charged Ms Laurie Garrett, who has written books on public health and pandemics, on MSNBC. "There is a kind of inability to grasp the unimaginable - what will we do if we get this virus on the same scale as China?"

In a phone call, she told The Straits Times: "Everything that's about to happen has been role-played in so many tabletop exercises. We anticipated all of this, including supply chain disruption, stock market difficulties, the loss of essential medical supplies, the run on masks; this was anticipated and nobody did anything.

"We had the beginning of preparedness under the Barack Obama administration - real programmes beginning to be rolled out. That was all eliminated by the Trump administration and now they are reinventing the wheel, in haste."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2020, with the headline Question of when, not if, US is hit by coronavirus pandemic. Subscribe