In a newly released interview, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins warned that the coronavirus is spreading quickly, especially in China — where the outbreak has infected tens of thousands and disrupted stores and supply chains.
“If you track the number of diagnoses worldwide, it is going up very steeply,” says Collins, one of the top-ranked U.S. officials focused on scientific research. “It's clearly transmitted from person to person, probably even when people aren't even symptomatic.”
“The concern, of course, is in China, where this is spreading very rapidly,” he told Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in a conversation taped on Tuesday.
The outbreak — which appears to have originated in the Eastern Chinese city of Wuhan — had infected more than 28,000 people and resulted in the deaths of over 560, as of Thursday. Apple (AAPL) has closed all of its stores and offices in the country, and Hyundai (HYMTF) brought its factories in South Korea to a halt due to shortages of Chinese parts.
Last month, China instituted the largest quarantine in human history, closing down 16 cities home to nearly 50 million people.
Collins described the fast-spreading nature of the virus as “bad news” but noted that the death rate of the virus is low compared to that of SARS, a viral outbreak in China that occurred in 2002 and 2003. SARS had a death rate of 9.6% compared to 2.1% for coronavirus.
“The good news is its lethality seems to be a lot lower,” Collins said.
Still, Collins called the death rate “very troubling.” On Thursday, reports emerged that Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who sounded the alarm about the mysterious new illness, had died from the coronavirus.
All in all, Collins downplayed the immediate threat to Americans, citing the so far limited spread of the virus in the U.S.
“I think at the present time, there is no reason for considerable anxiety in America,” he says. “Americans ought to be a lot more worried about the flu than they are about coronavirus.”
Collins made the comments during a conversation that aired in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
As director of the National Institutes of Health, Collins leads the largest funder of medical research in the world with a budget of $42 billion. His tenure has spanned 11 years and two presidents — Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
Prior to his current post, Collins served as director of the National Center for Human Genome Research Institute, where his work helped map the human genome.
Collins said the outbreak remains primarily in China but he is concerned that it may spread to countries in Africa.
“If you asked me a continent I'm particularly worried about is Africa,” he says. “There's not the resources there to discover whether somebody actually has been infected and to make sure that they get isolated, because the test that's necessary is pretty sophisticated.”
No infection has been found in Africa, but it is home to 1.2 billion people and one million Chinese nationals — the latter in part as a result of the country’s Belt and Road Initiative. There are six labs in Africa that can test for the virus, the Washington Post reported.
“There is a lot of people going back and forth between China and Africa, so all of us watching this have to worry, particularly about the east part of Africa where there's a lot of travel,” Collins says.
Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.