A coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, has killed 17 people and infected more than 630.
The virus has spread to at least seven other countries, including the US, were a 30-year-old man in Washington was confirmed to have the illness.
A scientist at Johns Hopkins modeled what would happen if a deadly coronavirus reached a pandemic scale.
In a simulated scenario, his organization predicted that 65 million people could die within 18 months.
Eric Toner, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, wasn't shocked when news of a mysterious coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, surfaced in early January.
Less than three months prior, Toner had staged a simulation of a global pandemic involving a coronavirus.
Coronaviruses typically affect the respiratory tract and can lead to illnesses like pneumonia or the common cold. A coronavirus was also responsible for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China, which affected around 8,000 people and killed 774 from 2002 to 2003.
"I have thought for a long time that the most likely virus that might cause a new pandemic would be a coronavirus," Toner said.
The outbreak in Wuhan isn't currently considered a pandemic, but it has spread to Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia. The US reported its first case on Tuesday: a man in his 30s living in Washington's Snohomish County, north of Seattle.
So far, the virus has killed 17 people and infected more than 630.
"We don't yet know how contagious it is. We know that it is being spread person to person, but we don't know to what extent," Toner said. "An initial first impression is that this is significantly milder than SARS. So that's reassuring. On the other hand, it may be more transmissible than SARS, at least in the community setting."
Toner's simulation of a hypothetical deadly coronavirus pandemic suggested that after six months, nearly every country in the world would have cases of the virus. Within 18 months, 65 million people could die.
A viral pandemic could kill 65 million people
Toner's simulation imagined a fictional virus called CAPS. The analysis, done as part of a collaboration with the World Economic Forum and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, looked at what would happen if a pandemic originated among Brazil's pig farms. (The Wuhan virus, by contrast, originated in a seafood market that sold live animals.)
The virus in Toner's simulation would be resistant to any modern vaccine. It would be deadlier than SARS, but about as easy to catch as the flu.
The pretend outbreak started small: Farmers began coming down with symptoms that resembled the flu or pneumonia. From there, the virus spread to crowded and impoverished urban neighborhoods in South America.
Flights were canceled and travel bookings dipped by 45%. People disseminated false information on social media.
After six months, the virus had spread around the globe. A year later, it had killed 65 million people.
The pandemic virus that caused the Spanish flu of 1918, by contrast, claimed 50 million lives.
Toner's simulated pandemic also triggered a global financial crisis: Stock markets fell by between 20% and 40% and global GDP plunged by 11%.
"The point that we tried to make in our exercise back in October is that it isn't just about the health consequences," Toner said. "It's about the consequences on economies and societies."
He added the Wuhan coronavirus could also have significant economic effects if the total number of cases hits the thousands.
On Friday, Hong Kong's stock market fell by as much as 2.8%. The drop was led by the tourism and transportation sectors, including airlines, tour agencies, hotels, restaurants, and theme parks.
An age of epidemics
In the CAPS simulation, scientists were unable to develop a vaccine in time to stop a pandemic. That's a realistic assumption: Even real-life coronaviruses like SARS or MERS (a virus that has killed more than 840 people from 2012 to 2019) still don't have vaccines.
"If we could make it so that we could have a vaccine within months rather than years or decades, that would be a game changer," Toner said. "But it's not just the identification of potential vaccines. We need to think even more about how they are manufactured on a global scale and distributed and administered to people."
If scientists don't find a way to develop vaccines quicker, he added, dangerous outbreaks will continue to spread. That's because cities are becoming more crowded and humans are encroaching on spaces usually reserved for wildlife, which creates a breeding ground for infectious diseases.
"It's part of the world we live in now," Toner said. "We're in an age of epidemics."