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Coronavirus: Epidemic or Pandemic?

Kevin Cook
  • (1:00) - Severe Health Crisis for China

  • (6:10) - A Brief History of Pandemics

  • (15:45) -  Got DNA? Coronavirus Genome

  • (23:20) - In Search of a Vaccine

  • (32:55) - Competition: A New Science?

  • (43:15) - Episode Roundup: Podcast@Zacks.com

Disclaimer: I didn't do this podcast and write the companion article to get clicks. I mean, I want you to listen and read, but I didn't pick this topic because it's hot, drama-infused news. I did it because it's fascinating and not something we get to think and talk about every week. So I was inspired to learn more and make important connections where I could.

I've strung together a web of connected themes, including real-time resources for understanding the spread of the disease as well as complex, big picture debates about economics, population growth, and why some visionaries believe we can't wait to colonize our solar system and beyond.

Where Does Coronavirus Come From?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds and are common in many different species of animals, including camels and bats. Rarely, these coronaviruses can evolve and infect humans and then spread between them. Recent examples of this include SARS-CoV (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

While four older human coronaviruses commonly cause mild to moderate illness in people worldwide, the two newer human varieties, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV, have been known to frequently cause severe illness. Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface.

In humans, the virus causes respiratory infections which are typically mild including the common cold, but again, rarer forms like SARS and MERS can be lethal. In cows and pigs they may cause diarrhea, while in chickens it can cause an upper respiratory disease. There are no vaccines or antiviral drugs that are approved for prevention or treatment.

The incubation period (from exposure to symptoms) of the virus is between 2 and 10 days and it remains contagious during this time. Symptoms include fever, coughing and breathing difficulties and it can be fatal.

A Severe Health Crisis for China

The newest coronavirus, designated 2019-nCoV, was first identified in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in the Hubei province of China, after people developed pneumonia without a clear cause and for which existing vaccines or treatments were not effective.

The virus has shown evidence of human-to-human transmission and the rate of infection spread appeared to escalate in mid-January 2020, with several countries across Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific reporting cases. As of January 28, there were five known cases in the US: Chicago, IL; Everett, WA; Maricopa County, AZ; and two in Los Angeles.

As of January 27, 2020, approximately 4,600 cases had been confirmed across China. The first confirmed death from the infection occurred on January 9 and since then over 105 deaths had been confirmed. As I type this article on the evening of January 28, China officially reported another 800+ cases and 25 more deaths due to 2019-nCoV.

Easily over 40 million people have been placed under quarantine in Wuhan and 15 other cities in the surrounding Hubei province, involving the termination of all public transportation and obviously all outward transport by train, air and bus. Wuhan is racing to build two dedicated hospitals with over 2,500 beds for those infected.

Geometric Infection Spread?

The number of cases in China now exceeds the approximate 5,500 infected with the SARS coronavirus that killed about 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003. The rate of spread is probably of concern to officials in China and in the West, though the World Health Organization (WHO) has stopped short of declaring it a global health emergency.

According to Bianco Research in Chicago, based on official China National Health Commission data, the geometric rate of transmission where every infected person can infect 2 to 2.5 people, we could be looking at 88,000 sick by February 3 and 315,000 ill by Feb 6.

To stay up to date on the latest information, here is the CDC homepage on Coronavirus with many resources and references.

Another resource I describe and recommend in the podcast is STATnews.com for their excellent medical and biotechnology reporting. They are offering all coronavirus-related articles in front of their pay-wall at this time.

In an article I share from by Sharon Begley, she talks about the advantage scientists and public health officials have now that they didn't two decades ago: fast and affordable genome sequencing power from equipment like that built by Illumina ILMN.

In Search of a Vaccine

In this episode, I also glance at some of the companies who might be involved in an eventual vaccine. Early in the week, the Wall Street Journal reported that shares of companies including Inovio Pharmaceuticals INO, Moderna MRNA, and Novavax NVAX were surging as the Wuhan coronavirus spread further.

The rallies were sparked last week when the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a public-private nonprofit based in Norway, announced that it would provide as much as $11 million in funding to Inovio and Moderna to develop vaccines against the coronavirus.

The CEPI aims to derail epidemics by speeding up the development of vaccines. But Jefferies analyst Jared Holz threw some cold water on the big buzz in these small companies in a research note on Monday where he wrote, "Companies stating their interest in development vaccines for coronavirus are likely too late, as we saw similar commentary around SARS and other similar situations."

Pandemics: The Plague and The Spanish Flu

For the podcast, I thought it would be interesting to look at past pandemics to see what is possible and probable. Even though developed nations have historically robust levels of sanitation and disease control that prevent flu epidemics, the pace of spreading for 2019-nCoV is clearly on its way to exceeding prior epidemics like Ebola and SARS.

According to the WHO, a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. An influenza pandemic occurs when a new "flu" virus emerges and spreads around the world, and most people do not have immunity. Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza viruses.

The last great pandemic that killed tens of millions was the 1918 influenza pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu. It was the first of the two pandemics involving H1N1 influenza virus and infected 500 million people around the world, killing an estimated 50 million and possibly much more. This death toll would have been three to five percent of Earth's population at the time, making it one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.

Most influenza outbreaks disproportionately kill the very young and the very old, with a higher survival rate for those in-between. However, the Spanish flu pandemic resulted in a higher than expected mortality rate for young adults. (Source: 2013 research paper linked on Wikipedia page for Spanish flu, "Age-specific mortality during the 1918 influenza pandemic: Unraveling the mystery of high young adult mortality").

For a great 5-minute video on the Spanish flu, check out History.com.

Ode to China

Did you know that the "big daddy" of pandemics, The Plague of the 14th century, originated from China? Killing anywhere from 75 million to 200 million, the Black Death probably came cruising along the Silk Road after the Mongols and Marco Polo got traffic and trade rolling to connect East and West.

But let's try to end on a good note about China today. In the prior episode of the Mind Over Money podcast, I took a look at a great new book by SpaceX mission manager Andrew Rader. His Beyond The Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us to the Stars is a blast because to make his argument for colonizing space he first gives us a 220-page tour of history's great explorers including the Polynesians, Phoenicians, Vikings, Italians, Chinese, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, and British.

That episode, Empires and Explorers: Our Destiny in the Stars, also features several Western experts on China like Michael Pillsbury who wrote 2015's The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.

Upon further progress in Rader's bookthis week, I am reminded of what a great power China was in the early 15th century with the largest city, Beijing at almost a million, and the largest and most advanced navy in the world. Rader makes a long list of Chinese inventions including the magnetic compass, various ship rudders, crossbows, flush toilets, dental fillings, hot-air balloons, hydraulics, negative numbers, paper money, and the printing press, which they never found much use for with over 25,000 characters in the language.

Rader writes, "In stark contrast to the opulence of China, Europe at the time was a miserable backwater still recovering from the ravages of the Black Death, which had recently reduced the population by a third."

He goes on to suggest that the idea an isolated and impoverished Europe would eventually come to dominate the world would have seemed crazy at the time. "China, far more than Europe, was poised to discover, settle, and conquer the world." To learn why they didn't, be sure to grab Rader's book!

Complexity Science: Climate, Population, and Space

Moving on in this "billiard table" podcast, I also pull off a wonderful combination shot connecting other complex balls. Since we are talking about global populations potentially affected by a disease pandemic, I found that Rader's book is the perfect jumping off point for all discussions about why we need to explore and colonize the solar system as soon as we can (I'm talking in decades here).

With projections of 9 billion plus on the planet in three decades by 2050, things are going to get tighter from resource, food, and land perspectives. Getting ready and having options on the moon and Mars is our natural, no-brainer destiny as explorers.

Coincidentally as I'm reading Rader, I came across Dr. Jane Goodall's comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos where climate change and global warming were the hot discussion topics. The wonderful primatologist "remarked at the event that human population growth is responsible, and that most environmental problems wouldn’t exist if our numbers were at the levels they were 500 years ago," according to TheConversation.com.

This conclusion seems somewhat self-evident. But then, here we are. Humans do what we do and we can't stop breeding any more than inventing and exploring. Carry on. To Mars… and beyond.

Competition: A New Science?

Finally in today's episode, I introduce an important 2007 book I would bet 99.5% of my audience -- or the USA, whichever is bigger -- has never heard of. Applied mathematician James Case wrote Competition: Birth of a New Science to tackle the preposterous assumptions and predetermined certainties (not subject to testing) of pseudo-sciences like economics.

It's fascinating to me that he published the same year as my other favorite econ-smashing book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Both credit Benoit Mandelbrot, author of 2004's The (Mis)Behavior of Markets, for his original ideas about the limitations of standard deviation in markets and Modern Portfolio Theory models.

He opens with the 1997 victory by IBM's IBM Deep Blue computer over world chess champion Garry Kasparov, handing him his first professional defeat. And then he puzzles over how hard it might be to "crack the code" to play Go and beat a human champ.

Little did he know that companies like Google, DeepMind, and NVIDIA NVDA would soon be building the foundational parallel processing essential to machine learning and eventually bring more complex games like Go and Texas Hold'em poker under control.

Case is also a big fan of physicist Richard Feynman and I share some of his observations about the quantummaverick's 1974 commencement address to the graduates at CalTech. My favorite Feynman-ism is this...

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything.”

And Case plucked this gem from the 1985 book by Ralph Leighton, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!...

"After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. But not fooling yourself is far from easy because, liking your own ideas, you are the easiest one to fool."

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the Healthcare Innovators service. Click Follow Author above to receive his latest stock research and macro analysis.

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