“We have for many weeks been saying that, while we hope this is not going to be severe, we are planning as if it is,” Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, said during a Feb. 25, 2020, telebriefing with reporters. “The data over the last week and the spread in other countries has certainly raised our level of concern and raised our level expectation that we are going to have community spread here.”
Dr. Messonnier noted that the coronavirus is now showing signs of community spread without a known source of exposure in a number of countries, including in Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. This has now raised the belief that there will be more widespread outbreaks in the United States.
“What we still don’t know is what that will look like,” she said. “As many of you know, we can have community spread in the United States and have it be reasonably mild. We can have community spread in the U.S. and have it be very severe. That is what we don’t completely know yet and we certainly also don’t exactly know when it is going to happen.”
She reiterated the number of actions being taken to slow the potential spread in the United States, including detecting, tracking, and isolating all cases, as well as restricting travel into the United States and issuing travel advisories for countries where coronavirus outbreaks are known.
“We are doing this with the goal of slowing the introduction of this new virus into the U.S. and buying us more time to prepare,” Dr. Messonnier said, noting the containment strategies have been largely successful, though it will be more difficult as more countries experience community spread of the virus.
Dr. Messonnier also reiterated that at this time there are no vaccines and no medicines to treat the coronavirus. She stressed the need to adhere to nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), as they will be “the most important tools in our response to this virus.”
She said the NPIs will vary based on the severity of the outbreak in any given local community and include personal protective measures that individuals can take every day (many of which mirror the recommendations for preventing the spread of the seasonal flu virus), community NPIs that involve social distancing measures designed to keep people away from others, and environmental NPIs such as surface cleaning measures.
CDC’s latest warning comes as parent agency the Department of Health & Human Services is seeking $2.5 billion in funds from Congress to address the coronavirus outbreak.
During a separate press conference on the same day, HHS Secretary Alex Azar noted that there are five major priorities related to those funds, which would be used in the current year, including expansion of surveillance work within the influenza surveillance network; supporting public health preparedness and response for state and local governments; support the development of therapeutics and the development of vaccines; and the purchase of personal protective equipment for national stockpiles.
Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health, added during the press conference that vaccine work is in progress and could be ready for phase 1 testing within a month and a half. If all goes well, it would still be at least 12 - 18 months following the completion of a phase 2 trial before it could be produced for mass consumption.
“It is certainly conceivable that this issue with this coronavirus will go well beyond this season into next season,” Dr. Fauci said. “So a vaccine may not solve the problems of the next couple of months, but it certainly would be an important tool that we would have and we will keep you posted on that.”
He also mentioned that NIAID is looking at a number of candidates for therapeutic treatment of coronavirus. He highlighted Gilead’s remdesivir, a nucleotide analog, as one which undergoing two trials – a randomized controlled trial in China and a copy of that trial in Nebraska among patients with the coronavirus who were taken from the Diamond Princess cruise line in Japan.
“I am optimistic that we will at least get an answer if we do have do have a therapy that really is a gamechanger because then we could do something from the standpoint of intervention for those who are sick,” Dr. Fauci said.
UPDATE: This story was updated 2/25 at 4:51 p.m. ET