Coronavirus might spread much quicker than health officials thought

Sign up for our special edition newsletter to get a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus might spread much more quickly than health officials initially believed, according to a new study.

The research, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, found that people infected during the initial outbreak in Wuhan probably passed the virus to an average 5.7 others — more than double the 2 or 2.5 other people estimated by health officials and the World Health Organization.

Patients sick with the seasonal flu, by comparison, will on average infect another 1.3 people.

If the numbers are accurate and applicable elsewhere, the coronavirus pandemic could only be stopped by a widespread vaccination or built immunity for 82 percent of the population, according to the researchers, who reviewed Chinese data from the CDC, including mobile phone data that tracked the movement of patients leaving Wuhan.

“How contagious SARS-CoV-2 (the new coronavirus) is in other countries remains to be seen,” the researchers wrote in their study published in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal.

“Given the rapid rate of spread as seen in current outbreaks in Europe, we need to be aware of the difficulty of controlling SARS-CoV-2 once it establishes sustained human-to-human transmission in a new population.”

The passing of the disease can be slowed, though, through the use of quarantines and social distancing, the scientists said, pointing to successes with outbreaks in South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, among others.

“Our results suggest that a combination of control measures, including early and active surveillance, quarantine, and especially strong social distancing efforts, are needed to slow down or stop the spread of the virus,” the team said.

“If these measures are not implemented early and strongly, the virus has the potential to spread rapidly and infect a large fraction of the population, overwhelming healthcare systems.”