Experts Prep for Potential Coronavirus Outbreak

January 30, 2020    |  

As public health officials around the world are monitoring a new coronavirus strain (2019-nCoV) first identified in the Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) is mobilizing its physicians and scientists in UMSOM’s Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health (CVD), and in its Department of Microbiology & Immunology, to study the virus and test potential vaccines and other therapies. In addition, UMSOM is collaborating with the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) on rapid response and preparedness planning in the event of a growing outbreak.

Wilbur Chen, MD; Matthew Frieman, PhD; and Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH

Wilbur Chen, MD; Matthew Frieman, PhD; and Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH

A team of experts also has been assembled by the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) as the Emergency Management Unified Command Committee. This committee includes Wilbur Chen, MD, associate professor in UMSOM's Department of Medicine and an infectious disease expert at CVD. At the University of Maryland, College Park, Chen also is a member of the Campus Infectious Disease Management Committee, where response planning is similarly ongoing for an appropriate campuswide public health response to 2019-nCoV.

Matthew Frieman, PhD, associate professor in UMSOM's Department of Microbiology and Immunology and an affiliate faculty member of CVD, is an expert on coronaviruses. He is providing guidance and support for identifying potential cases of 2019-nCoV infection. Kathleen Neuzil, MD, MPH, the Myron M. Levine, MD, Professor in Vaccinology, professor of medicine and pediatrics, and director of CVD, is co-principal investigator of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium Leadership Group. Neuzil has been in discussions on the planning of potential therapies and vaccines against 2019-nCoV.

In coordination with UMMC, UMSOM’s senior associate dean for clinical affairs, Anthony Lehman, MD, MSPH, is working closely with Michael Jablonover, MD, MBA, FACP, senior vice president and chief medical officer at UMMC, to form a Coronavirus Preparedness Committee. The group is chaired by David Marcozzi, MD, MHS-CL, FACEP, associate professor of emergency medicine at UMSOM, and Gregory Schrank, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at UMSOM. They will be charged with ensuring that coordinated UMSOM/UMMC preparedness plans are defined, implemented, and articulated to all relevant constituencies.

About the Coronavirus

Coronaviruses are part of a family of viruses that can affect humans and are commonly found in many different species of animals. Symptoms are usually those of the common cold and can include a dry cough, fever, or chills. More severe cases can occur in individuals with weakened immune systems and the elderly.

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak originating in Wuhan, China, is a rapidly evolving situation. Scientists at UMSOM are well-positioned to respond to this situation because of their extensive experience.

UMSOM experts note that coronaviruses are a leading cause of respiratory illness in patients, accounting for at least 15 percent of all viral respiratory illnesses. “We typically do not test for what viruses cause common cold-like symptoms, so we don’t have a good estimate of the number of infections they cause each year,” Chen said.

Coronaviruses may affect people or animals. Other coronaviruses leading to outbreaks in the past include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS) identified in 2012 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) outbreak identified in 2003. To date, MERS has infected almost 2,500 people resulting in 858 associated deaths (a case fatality rate of approximately 35 percent), and SARS has 8,098 known cases resulting in 774 deaths (a case fatality rate of approximately 10 percent), according to the World Health Organization.

Frieman is currently investigating whether therapeutics he has developed for SARS and MERS will be effective against the 2019-nCoV virus as well as developing new treatments for this emerging coronavirus.

While so far there has been limited spread of this latest strain of coronavirus outside of China, UMSOM experts recommend taking precautions to avoid spread of the illness, especially amid increased global travel and connectedness. According to the World Health Organization and other global health officials, it only took weeks before the 2019-nCoV made its way outside of the region, with five cases as of Jan. 27 reported in the United States.

“As we continue to learn more about this new strain of coronavirus, we encourage best hygiene practices, such as limiting exposure to those who are sick, staying home when you are sick, and regularly washing hands. We know that influenza has similar symptoms to the coronavirus and is circulating in Maryland. We encourage everyone who has not yet done so to receive the influenza vaccine,” Neuzil said.

There currently is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus infections, though experts say the best way to prevent the spread of illnesses from respiratory viruses like the 2019-nCoV are the same important precautions that should be taken with influenza. The 2019-2020 influenza season is underway, and the winter months bring on higher incidences of other respiratory illnesses. Currently there is widespread influenza in Maryland.

“With our longstanding leadership in vaccine development, the University of Maryland School of Medicine is ideally positioned to mobilize resources around the research, prevention, and treatment of infectious diseases, such as this new coronavirus,” said UMSOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who also is the executive vice president for medical affairs, UMB, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor, University of Maryland School of Medicine. “The physician-scientists in our Center for Vaccine Development & Global Health, and our Department of Microbiology & Immunology, are ready to study this new coronavirus, test potential vaccines, and work with health officials around the world. Through our partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center, we are taking immediate steps to prepare for the potential outbreak of this virus.”

Public health officials caution that amid the current influenza season and growing concerns about this new coronavirus strain, there are many important steps that can be taken to prevent spread of illness.

As recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these steps include:

  • Regular hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throwing the tissue in the trash
  • In China, avoiding animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat)
  • Remaining at home when individuals have symptoms such as a persistent cough, fever, diarrhea, and chills
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • Completing your annual influenza vaccination, if not yet done, to reduce illness from influenza
Public health officials have already taken steps to prevent the spread of this latest strain, drawing on experience from prior outbreaks like SARS and MERS. For example, public health authorities such as WHO and CDC have initiated preparedness and response activities. Officials in Wuhan have closed local transportation resources out of the area to help reduce the spread of the virus. In addition, the United States and several other countries have started screening passengers from Wuhan at airports and other ports of entry. Health practitioners in other Chinese cities, as well as other countries including the U.S., have quickly identified travel-related cases and have isolated individuals for further care.

Information for Students and Employees

Students and employees who are experiencing fever or symptoms of respiratory illness and have either returned from China or have had close contact with a person under investigation for 2019-nCoV within the past 14 days should call University of Maryland Immediate Care at 667-214-1800 during normal business hours or their primary care provider's office immediately.
After normal business hours, students calling this line will be transferred to the physician on call.

After normal business hours, employees should call 443-466-0033 to reach the UMSOM employee health consultant.

Important Resources

The following resources are available with information on 2019-nCoV: