We have had a few run ins with serious coronavirus-type infections in this century. They were scary but did not seem widespread outside of Asia. Public health authorities ultimately got their arms around MERS, SARS, H1N1, etc.
This one (COVID-19) seems different because the symptoms for many victims are mild to moderate, increasing the chances they will not seek testing or treatment and go undiagnosed. This is particularly true in the absence of widely available testing capabilities. Those unaware they are contagious will greatly increase the chances they will inadvertently infect others.
There was a recent story in Wired magazine which remarked on how few children under the age of 10 have been infected by COVID-19. Further testing, however, revealed symptoms in young children were so mild that children didn’t complain, and parents did not recognize anything out of the ordinary. But some researchers believe asymptomatic children can still transmit the virus. Further research here is underway.
With test kits in very short supply, we run the risk of missing those who may not feel ill but can still transmit the virus to others. Frankly, until we can promptly and properly identify and isolate those infected with COVID-19, we are in uncharted waters.
The wait for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine could be 12-18 months or more, even with accelerated FDA-approval procedures in place. That said, as testament to man’s scientific ingenuity and, frankly, the power of capitalism there are already a score of potential vaccine candidates being readied for human testing.
But for right now, we seem to be without even an effective treatment or treatment strategy for dealing with patients who experience life-threatening reactions to COVID-19. At the moment, we seem to be relying heavily on mechanical ventilators for severe cases. Having an effective, easily administered treatment could go a long way to easing the sense of fear gripping those at risk, which, at the moment, includes just about all of us and our loved ones.
The markets are in full blown panic mode and vacillating wildly. Mostly, it seems, over the potential economic consequences of people avoiding crowds, cancelling travel plans, staying at home, etc. A number of major industry conferences and shows have already been cancelled out of an abundance of caution. More large gatherings may follow. The Summer Olympics in Tokyo may even be at risk.
Every report of a marked increase in COVID-19 cases sparks renewed panic as does news of event cancellations and whole countries, like Italy, employing extreme, nationwide social distancing measures. Those extreme public health strategies may, however, be the only way to limit person-to-person transmission. But putting them in place only persuades people that this pandemic is even worse than they had ever imagined.
What should businesses be doing about COVID-19? Firstly, do whatever you must to protect your employees, customers, business and, of course. yourselves and family members. Just as global equity markets have dropped like a stone in response to the spread of COVID-19, markets and the world economy will ultimately recover as the infection subsides, which it always has even in the worst pandemics. According to the Chinese government—consider the source—the rate of new infections has already slowed dramatically. Whether that is a reliable trend, or a statistical fluke remains to be seen.
The incredibly deadly Spanish Flu gripped the globe for a period of roughly 24 months from beginning to end. We are far better equipped today to deal with pandemics than we were 100 years ago. Hopefully the ultimate COVID-19 death toll will be a tiny, tiny fraction of the tens of millions of lives lost to the Spanish Flu.
The world’s best scientific minds and public health authorities are hard at work trying to understand this latest novel coronavirus and how to deal with its spread and its life-threatening symptoms. I, for one, remain optimistic that man’s endless scientific ingenuity will prevail.
Art Gormley is a principal at The Dilenschneider Group.