Conference Coverage

HHS: Coronavirus risk low in U.S., vaccine development underway


U.S. public health officials attempted to stymie concerns about the coronavirus during a press conference on Tuesday, emphasizing that most Americans are not in danger of contracting the illness and urging citizens not to take extreme measures in response to the low-risk virus.

“Right now, there is no spread of this virus in our communities here at home,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, MD, said during the Jan. 28 press conference. “This is why our current assessment is that the immediate health risk of this new virus to the general public is low in our nation. The coming days and weeks are likely to bring more confirmed cases here and around the world, including the possibility of some person-to-person spreading, but our goal of the ongoing U.S. public health response is to contain this outbreak and prevent sustained spread of the virus in our country.”

During the press conference, Department Health & Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II, reiterated there have been only five confirmed U.S. cases of the coronavirus thus far and all were associated with travel to Wuhan, China, where the virus first appeared. The number of confirmed cases in China, meanwhile, has risen to more than 4,500 with about 100 associated deaths.

U.S. health providers should be on the lookout for any patient who has traveled to China recently, particularly to Hubei province, and they should pay close attention to any relevant symptoms, Secretary Azar said during the press conference.

He defended the decision not to declare a public health emergency at this time, stressing that such a move is based on standards and requirements not yet met by the coronavirus.

“It’s important to remember where we are right now; we have five cases in the United States, each of those individuals with direct contact to Wuhan and no person-to-person transmission in the United States,” Secretary Azar said. “I won’t hesitate at all to invoke any authorities that I need to ensure that we’re taking all the steps to protect the American people, but I’ll do it when it’s appropriate under the standards that we have and the authorities that I need.”

In the meantime, a number of efforts are underway by U.S. agencies to assess the nation’s emergency preparedness stockpile, to assist American families in China with evacuation, and to pursue research into diagnostics and a potential vaccine for the virus, Secretary Azar said.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar (left), NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, and NCIRD Director Dr. Nancy Messonnier.

With regard to countermeasures, the CDC has rapidly developed a diagnostic based on the published sequence of the virus, said Anthony Fauci, MD, director for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). The National Institutes of Health and the CDC are now working on the development of next-generation diagnostics to better identify the virus in the United States and throughout the world, Dr. Fauci said during the press conference.

Currently, there are no proven therapeutics for the coronavirus infection, Dr. Fauci said. Based on experiences with SARS and MERS, however, researchers are studying certain antiviral drugs that could potentially treat the virus, he said. This includes the antiviral drug remdesivir, which was developed for the treatment of the Ebola virus, and lopinavir/ritonavir (Kaletra), a combination therapy commonly used to treat HIV. In addition, monoclonal antibodies developed during the SARS outbreak are also being studied.

“Given the somewhat close homology between SARS and the new novel coronavirus, there could be some cross reactivity there that could be utilized,” he said.

Most importantly, he said, vaccine development is underway. Since China isolated the virus and published its sequence, U.S. researchers have already analyzed the components and determined an immunogen to be used in a vaccine, Dr. Fauci said. He anticipates moving to a Phase 1 trial within the next 3 months. The trial would then move to Phase 2 after another few more months for safety data.

“What we do from that point will be determined by what has happened with the outbreak over those months,” he said. “We are proceeding as if we will have to deploy a vaccine. In other words, we’re looking at the worst scenario that this becomes a bigger outbreak.”

Federal health officials, however, stressed that more data about infected patients in China is needed for research. HHS has repeatedly offered to send a CDC team to China to help with public health efforts, research, and response, but China has so far declined the offer, Secretary Azar added.

In addition, the CDC has updated its travel advisory in response to the illness. The latest travel guidance recommends that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to all parts of China.

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