with Paulina Firozi


Is this new coronavirus a SARS redux? It’s too early to say, but the virus does appear to be spreading rapidly.

More than 500 people — most of them in Wuhan, China — have been sickened by the illness, and at least 17 have died, according to the latest figures. So far, the new coronavirus appears to be less deadly than the variety that caused the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, which sickened more than 8,000 people and killed about 800, but little is known about how contagious this new virus is.

Besides the quickly spreading cases in China, there’s one known infection in the United States and a few in Taiwan, Thailand and Japan, putting officials on high alert:

— As of Thursday morning, the Chinese government had quarantined some 11 million residents of Wuhan, shutting down train stations, ferries and buses, while 200 of some 600 flights out of the city’s international airport were canceled. “Unless there are special reasons, citizens should not leave Wuhan,” the new Coronavirus Infection Pneumonia Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarters in Wuhan said in a notice announcing the travel ban.

Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Chinese and English editions of the Global Times:

“Officials have warned that the virus could mutate, complicating efforts to contain it in the middle of the busiest travel period on the Chinese calendar,” my Washington Post colleagues Anna Fifield and Lena H. Sun write. “Some 400 million people are on the move in China in advance of Lunar New Year’s Day, which falls on Saturday.”

— The World Health Organization hasn’t declared it a public health emergency, but members said in a briefing yesterday that they’re split over whether to do so. Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the committee plans to meet again today

The WHO has, however, issued a situation report on the coronavirus — and it includes some bad news and little bit of good news. Of the 278 confirmed cases in China at the time the report was put together, 51 of those infected were severely ill. Yet at least five of the infected people didn’t experience any symptoms.

— The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is screening travelers from Wuhan at five international airports in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta. President Trump weighed in for the first time yesterday, saying, “It’s going to be just fine.”

“It’s one person coming in from China,” Trump said in a CNBC interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We have it under control.”

It’s hard not to compare this new illness with the SARS epidemic, which spread from China to more than two dozen countries over an eight-month period. Beyond the distressing death toll, SARS was also enormously costly: An estimated $30 billion in economic losses, or about $3 million per case.

And as it did with SARS, the Chinese government initially downplayed the outbreak, Anna reports in this piece laying out fears from some Chinese families that the infection count is actually too low. 

Chinese media have said the first case in Wuhan was reported on Dec. 8, but the local government didn’t put out an official notice until Dec. 31. And local authorities appear to have delayed further announcements about the virus’s danger until after a political meeting ended on Jan. 15.

Anna also interviewed the family of Chen Min, a woman who was recorded as dying of “severe pneumonia” last week. But hospital staff told her stepson they strongly suspected she had “that” kind of pneumonia. 

“At the crematorium, where the workers were in hazmat suits, Chen’s body was immediately incinerated without a proper farewell, and the vehicle it arrived in was disinfected,” Anna writes.

Yet there are also some positive signs this time around. While it took months for scientists to identify the cause of SARS, Chinese health officials have already identified the virus in Wuhan and confirmed it came from wild animals sold at a market there.

And the new coronavirus appears to be less deadly than SARS was. At least some of the initial deaths were among people who were already seriously ill, Bloomberg News’s Jason Gale write in this helpful explainer

Jason describes the symptoms this way: 

“Mainly fever, with some patients experiencing fatigue, a dry cough and difficulty breathing. Chest X-rays have shown invasive lesions of both lungs, the WHO said. However, only cases requiring hospitalization have been reported so far. It’s possible other people have been infected and experienced no, or only mild, symptoms. Many people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital.”

There are three big questions to be answered, former CDC director Tom Frieden writes in this piece published by Stat News. One, how fast this new virus spreads; two, how deadly it is; and three, how risk can be limited.

The bottom line, Frieden writes, is this: “The new virus is likely to continue spreading and be recognized more, and in more countries, in the coming days and weeks. We need to learn — and fast — about how it spreads and how often it causes severe illness so we can try to prevent its spread.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.): 

And then there's this question: Is the United States prepared for a catastrophic outbreak authorities have long feared?

"There is little doubt the country has made big leaps in preparedness since the anthrax scare of 2001, the SARS crisis in 2003, the MERS outbreak of 2014 and the West African Ebola epidemic that ended in 2016, according to experts and reports that evaluated the response to those crises," Lena and Lenny Bernstein write in this piece exploring U.S. readiness for a viral outbreak.

But any system is only as good as the information fed into it. In an interview yesterday, Frieden noted to Lena and Lenny how little is still known about the new coronavirus.

"How were 14 health-care workers in China infected — from one incident or from numerous patients? Why are some patients in China asymptomatic? How long do the infections last? How many are severe? What characteristics do the 17 people who died share?," my colleagues write.

“Large parts of the world have really bad diseases spreading that could bite us tomorrow and we don’t know about it,” Frieden said.


— Trump will speak at the March for Life in Washington on Friday, in a historic first. 

“While other U.S. presidents have addressed the annual rally by phone or sent video greetings, Trump would be the first to speak to the crowd in person,” our Post colleague Sarah Pulliam Bailey writes. “... In 2017, right after Trump was sworn in, Vice President Pence became the first vice president to address the rally in person, and Trump appeared via satellite, thrilling the crowd. Trump sent video greetings in 2018 and 2019, when Pence again appeared in person.”

“We are deeply honored to welcome President Trump to the 47th annual March for Life,” March for Life president Jeanne Mancini said in a statement, which praised his administration's support for the antiabortion movement. “... From the appointment of pro-life judges and federal workers, to cutting taxpayer funding for abortions here and abroad, to calling for an end to late-term abortions, President Trump and his Administration have been consistent champions for life and their support for the March for Life has been unwavering.”

Trump shared a video of last year's event and tweeted, “See you on Friday...Big Crowd!":

— For some, the antiabortion movement is not just about policies to limit the number of abortions, but also the right to distance their personal spending from support for the procedure, our Post colleague Julie Zauzmer reports.

She writes, for example, about Rev. Bjorn Lundberg, who will head to Washington for Friday’s March for Life. He stopped going to Starbucks after learning the chain matches employees’ charitable donations, including to Planned Parenthood and other nonprofit groups that support abortion access. 

“The antiabortion movement has embraced an emphasis — beginning with evangelical Protestants and now widespread among Catholics as well — on the connection between personal spending and antiabortion advocacy,” she writes. “And under President Trump, the federal government has endorsed their right to distance their dollars from abortion-related spending, taking steps to make it easier for taxpayers and health-care customers to demonstrate their dissent.”

Last year, Planned Parenthood dropped out of the federal Title X program over Trump’s rule banning groups that get funding from providing referrals for abortion. It was a victory for conservatives who called on the government to stop giving money to the organization. The administration also recently issued a new rule requiring two monthly insurance bills for those who purchase private plans on government-run exchanges. Now, customers can choose not to pay a separate bill that covers the cost of abortion coverage offered by their insurance plan.


AHH: Trump signaled he’s open to overhauling Medicare and other entitlement programs such as Social Security if he’s elected to a second term. 

The president was asked in an interview with CNBC on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, if entitlement cuts would ever be on his agenda. “At some point they will be … At the right time, we will take a look at that. You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things, if you look,” Trump said. 

In a statement, a White House spokesman said Trump was not pushing “benefit cuts” but said the administration would aim to cut “waste” and “fraud” in the programs, our Post colleagues Jeff Stein and Matt Viser report

“Trump as a 2016 presidential candidate promised not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, a position typically more in line with Democratic lawmakers that set him apart from the rest of the GOP field," Jeff and Matt write. "His budget proposals as president, however, have called for slight reductions in Medicare and bigger changes to Medicaid spending. He is also seeking curbs to Social Security disability programs, but he has not pursued changes to Social Security benefits for older Americans.”

OOF: Executives of five top e-cigarette manufacturers will testify before House lawmakers, who intend to grill them on their role in the youth vaping crisis.

Juul, Logic, NJOY, Fontem (blu) and Reynolds American, which represent 97 percent of the nation’s market for e-cigarettes, are set to speak Feb. 5 before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) announced.

“Nobody using these vaping products really knows how they will affect their health,” DeGette said in a statement. “Yet, while consumers remain in the dark of the possible health consequences, these companies are making billions of dollars as they lure a new generation of young people into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.”

The Colorado Democrat said lawmakers probably will ask about the companies’ marketing practices, the possible health effects of their products and the role the companies think the industry should play in addressing the emerging crisis. 

OUCH: The lobbying efforts around surprise medical billing legislation have not let up. A new coalition of conservative groups called the Coalition Against Rate-Setting will launch digital and video ads to bat down a bipartisan proposal that aims to end the exorbitant bills some patients get for out-of-network care. 

The coalition is targeting a proposal from Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) that would peg payments to existing rates for in-network doctors.

“The conservative coalition, which includes fiscally conservative groups like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) and Heritage Action for America, calls the proposal ‘rate-setting’ that meddles in private health care decisions,” the Hill’s Jessie Hellman reports. “… The TPA has already run $500,000 worth of ads in Kentucky, Kansas, Texas and New York on surprise billing.” 

Lawmakers are seeking to include their bipartisan plan in a funding package that needs to pass by May 22. Meanwhile, Pallone is expected to meet soon with House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) to discuss a compromise on a competing proposal from the House panel. 


— The State Department is planning to issue a new rule that could make it more difficult for some pregnant women to get visas to visit the United States, in an effort to take on “birth tourism,” our Post colleagues Carol Morello, Abigail Hauslohner and Maria Sacchetti report. 

“Most people who are born in the United States are entitled to U.S. citizenship, even if their parents are not citizens. It is unclear how many people travel to the United States to give birth each year with the intention of obtaining citizenship for their children, as the U.S. government does not publish statistics on the matter,” they write. “… The guidelines, which the State Department will circulate to U.S. consular officers, will impact B1 and B2 nonimmigrant visas, otherwise known as temporary visas for business, tourism or medical treatment. The U.S. government issued 5.7 million B1 and B2 visas in fiscal year 2018.” 

A State Department official told The Post the new regulations won’t bar pregnant women from obtaining visas but will give consular officers the authority to decide whether women are planning to visit just for the purpose of giving birth. “Consular officers would use their judgment when screening cases, the staffer said, and would not ask every woman applying for a visa — some of which are valid for years — if they are pregnant,” our colleagues add. 

— And here are a few more good reads:






Coming Up

  • The annual National March for Life will be held in Washington on Friday.


Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is presiding over the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump. Here’s a look at how he may define the role. (The Washington Post)