The Serious Genius Behind Hilarious Comedy


If You Work in a Creative Industry, You Should Steal Other People's Ideas

Just as Shakespeare lifted plots from his predecessors, young performers today ought to focus on emulating those artists they like most. That's not to say plagiarism is excusable; it's not. It just means that artists who are just getting started should seek to model themselves after those who have gone before.


Take it from John Cleese of Monty Python fame: "You say, 'I'm going to write something completely new and original and very funny.' You can't do it. It's like trying to fly a plane without having any lessons. You've got to start somewhere and the best way to start is by copying something that is really good."

Ruby Wax on Neuroplasticity: "You're the Architect of Your Own Brain"

Ruby Wax put her comedy career on hold a few years ago in order to research mental illness and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy at Oxford. It's there that she first encountered neuroplasticity: the ability to rewire your brain just by changing the way you think. Wax, who sports a Master's in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, now travels the world promoting mental health awareness and stigmatization. Her new book is titled "Sane New World."

Jesus Was My Invisible Babysitter

In this personal narrative of the evolution of his faith, Ricky Gervais describes how and why he became an atheist.

The Most Valuable Skill that Nobody Teaches: How to Listen

Tom Yorton explains why listening is paramount to good business. The value of working toward excellent listening skills is one of the key lessons he's learned from working as an executive at Second City. Yorton is co-author of a new book titled Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration — Lessons from The Second City.

Stephen Fry’s Humor Was Lost on Salt Lake City

A Mormon tour guide did not appreciate his sly questions.

Making Fun of People Is Inclusive, but Only If It’s Funny

Whatever we're most afraid to talk about, that's where comedy should go, says famously outrageous (and outrageously funny) comedienne Lisa Lampanelli. We're spending way too much time tiptoeing around each other for fear of causing offense, and it's driving people and communities apart. Whatever makes us laugh brings us closer together.

Laughter: The Only Thing in Life That Will Save You From Looking Stupid

America has had biting social satire since at least the mid-'50s (Lenny Bruce). We’ve gone through many convulsions as a society, but we’re still (again) in the midst of racial anxiety and social upheaval (rich-poor gap, Donald Trump’s xenophobia). Ian Edwards' comedy often deals with issues of social discomfort around race and identity. More than any other profession, stand-up comedy is about getting to the truth of who you are, and becoming at ease with that. Edwards discusses comedy not as one single thing but as several, distinct things. Comedy is an antidote to taking life too seriously — an equivalent to sex, and a way to safely express truths that aren't politically correct.

Let’s Stop Giving Oscars to Actors Who Play the Disabled, and Start Letting the Disabled Play Themselves.

Outside of RJ Mitte, who played Walt Jr. on Breaking Bad, there are very few actors with disabilities who get the chance to tell their own stories on television. Actress and comedian Maysoon Zayid, who like Mitte was born with cerebral palsy, discusses her disability in this Big Think interview while also stressing the importance of positive media portrayals of people with disabilities. "When you do see disability on television," she says, "we're reduced to two storylines. Either 'heal me' or 'you can't love me because I'm disabled.'" Zayid hopes someday soon television will make a stronger commitment to actors with disabilities.

Onion Editor Joe Randazzo Reveals How to Write Concise, Funny Headlines That Avoid Rambling or Falling Flat

How The Onion keeps its front page funny.

We Can't Have Comedy and Be Politically Correct at the Same Time

John Cleese says political correctness has gone too far, especially on America's college campuses, where he will no longer go to perform. The very essence of his trade — comedy — is criticism and that not infrequently means hurt feelings. But protecting everyone from negative emotion all the time is not only impractical (one can't control the feelings of another), but also improper in a free society. Cleese, having worked with psychiatrist Robin Skynner, says there may even be something more sinister behind the insistence to be always be politically correct.

More playlists
  • The default "rest mode" of our brains is often taken over by a "threat mode" setting because of our stressful, "on-the-go" lifestyles. When we are chronically in threat mode, this leaves us with less capacity for compassion.
  • Showing compassion or acting kind to others can actually change your physiology, taking you out of threat mode and putting you back into your natural "rest and digest" mode.
  • Research by a well-known Stanford professor Dr. James Doty has shown that acts of kindness or compassion that put us back into our "rest mode" can have lasting positive impacts on our physical and mental health.

Kindness is a virtue that is admired and applauded, in most cases. But did you know that being kind can also be good for your health? In fact, being compassionate to others can actually reset our consistently stressed systems back into our default "rest mode", causing all kinds of positive effects to our overall health.

Our nervous system was never meant to be in "threat mode" all the time

confused brain with rough lines happy brain with smooth lines

Living in "threat mode" isn't healthy for our minds or our bodies.

Image by Pogorelova Olga on Shutterstock

According to Dr. James Doty, Stanford professor and author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart, the nervous system doesn't function optimally if it's in threat mode all the time. And yet, our adrenaline-fueled, "on-the-go" lifestyles have us operating mainly in threat mode, which can be one of the reasons we contract a variety of different illnesses.

Our bodies release inflammatory proteins in response to stress. Because of this release, our nervous system shows a decrease in the capabilities of our immune system, which is what responds to threats such as germs or bacteria that cause illnesses.

The constant over-stimulation of our nervous systems caused by our fast-paced way of living also makes us much more inclined to jump to (often judgmental) conclusions about other people. This kind of quick judgment dulls our own ability to act out of compassion for others. That, in turn, leaves us operating in a constant threat mode, which has negative long-term effects on our health.

Kindness and compassion reset us into "rest mode", starting in the nervous system

The ability to feel and act out of compassion for others can have a huge effect on your overall health.

Dr. Doty explains it best in this Uplift article:

"When someone acts with compassionate intentions, this has a huge, huge positive effect on their physiology. It takes them out of threat mode and puts them into the rest and digest mode. What happens when that occurs is it changes how they respond to events."

According to Dr. Doty, instead of a quick response that is often based on fear, anxiety or stress, our response time is slower and more deliberate, which tends to result in more effective, more creative and more compassionate actions. We are able to change the responses we have to events because we are allowing the executive control area of our brain to function at the highest level.

Several studies at Emory University have demonstrated this and given results that support the idea that regular compassionate acts or compassion-based meditation practices can reduce negative neuroendocrine interactions in our brains (which are the interactions between our nervous system and the endocrine system).

The sympathetic nervous system vs the parasympathetic nervous system

smiling woman light up brain illustration

The benefits from being kind can help us live healthier, happier lives.

Photo by ESB Professional on Shutterstock

When we switch to our parasympathetic nervous system (which we instinctively do when we act out of compassion), we flip out of the sympathetic nervous system that most of us live in due to our busy lifestyles.

When this switch happens, our heart rate variability increases, which causes a boost in our immune system. This immune system boost can help us fight off infections or illnesses.

Now, let's talk about telomeres. To visualize them, you can imagine small caps that protect the ends of chromosomes during cell division. Telomeres get shorter each time a chromosome copies itself during cell division, which happens constantly. Eventually, telomeres get too short to do their job of protecting the genetic information stored in the chromosomes, which causes the cells to eventually stop replicating—a process known as cell death. This is how telomeres act as an aging clock in every cell we have; the faster your telomeres shorten, the more advanced the aging process becomes.

Research by Dr. Doty has shown that one of the long-term positive effects of living in our parasympathetic nervous system (referred to as our "resting" mode) is that our telomeres actually increase in length.

In theory, over time, being kind and compassionate can actually slow down the aging process in some of the cells of our body.

Just as showing compassion can recalibrate our nervous systems out of threat mode and back into resting mode, experiencing compassion or kindness from others also has a positive impact on our systems. Research by Stony Brook University professor Stephanie Brown has proven that experiencing compassion can lead to tremendous improvements in our mental and physical well-being, as well.

Be kind. It's good for your health.

This ground-breaking research allow us to understand the benefits that kind human interactions can have on the health of our minds and bodies.

The positive ripple effect that comes from being kind doesn't just impact our health, but it can also impact our interactions with others and set off a positive chain reaction with far-reaching benefits across entire communities. Resetting our own systems into resting mode by taking ourselves out of threat mode can allow us to process things more clearly and make better choices.

In a world where you can be pretty much anything, be kind. It's good for your health.


  • While it is good to recognize societal diversity, it is difficult to argue in favor of creating cultural accommodations to preserve and protect specific groups.
  • Creating protections for people who belong to certain traditions can result in the creation of cultures that did not previously exist. The challenge would be to find a way to provide protections that are not too explicit while also being careful not to advantage one internal group and disadvantage another.
  • The classical liberal response is a principle of hyper-tolerance. Groups are free to form, members are free to dissent, and there are no acknowledgements of special protections or of the right to force conformity within cultures.
  • Researchers have been trying for over 60 years to detect dark matter.
  • There are many theories about it, but none are supported by evidence.
  • The mass-energy-information equivalence principle combines several theories to offer an alternative to dark matter.


The  “discovery” of dark matter

We can tell how much matter is in the universe by the motions of the stars. In the1920s, physicists attempting to do so discovered a discrepancy and concluded that there must be more matter in the universe than is detectable. How can this be?

In 1933, Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, while observing the motion of galaxies in the Coma Cluster, began wondering what kept them together. There wasn't enough mass to keep the galaxies from flying apart. Zwicky proposed that some kind of dark matter provided cohesion. But since he had no evidence, his theory was quickly dismissed.

Then, in 1968, astronomer Vera Rubin made a similar discovery. She was studying the Andromeda Galaxy at Kitt Peak Observatory in the mountains of southern Arizona when she came across something that puzzled her. Rubin was examining Andromeda's rotation curve, or the speed at which the stars around the center rotate, and realized that the stars on the outer edges moved at the exact same rate as those at the interior, violating Newton's laws of motion. This meant there was more matter in the galaxy than was detectable. Her punch card readouts are today considered the first evidence of the existence of dark matter.

Many other galaxies were studied throughout the '70s. In each case, the same phenomenon was observed. Today, dark matter is thought to comprise up to 27% of the universe. "Normal" or baryonic matter makes up just 5%. That's the stuff we can detect. Dark energy, which we can't detect either, makes up 68%.

Dark energy is what accounts for the Hubble Constant, or the rate at which the universe is expanding. Dark matter on the other hand, affects how "normal" matter clumps together. It stabilizes galaxy clusters. It also affects the shape of galaxies, their rotation curves, and how stars move within them. Dark matter even affects how galaxies influence one another.

Leading theories on dark matter

NASA writes: 'This graphic represents a slice of the spider-web-like structure of the universe, called the "cosmic web." These great filaments are made largely of dark matter located in the space between galaxies.'

Credit: NASA, ESA, and E. Hallman (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Since the '70s, astronomers and physicists have been unable to identify any evidence of dark matter. One theory is it's all tied up in space-bound objects called MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects). These include black holes, supermassive black holes, brown dwarfs, and neutron stars.

Another theory is that dark matter is made up of a type of non-baryonic matter, called WIMPS (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). Baryonic matter is the kind made up of baryons, such as protons and neutrons and everything composed of them, which is anything with an atomic nucleus. Electrons, neutrinos, muons, and tau particles aren't baryons, however, but a class of particles called leptons. Even though the (hypothetical) WIMPS would have ten to a hundred times the mass of a proton, their interactions with normal matter would be weak, making them hard to detect.

Then there are those aforementioned neutrinos. Did you know that giant streams of them pass from the Sun through the Earth each day, without us ever noticing? They're the focus of another theory that says that neutral neutrinos, that only interact with normal matter through gravity, are what dark matter is comprised of. Other candidates include two theoretical particles, the neutral axion and the uncharged photino.

Now, one theoretical physicist posits an even more radical notion. What if dark matter didn't exist at all? Dr. Melvin Vopson of the University of Portsmouth, in the UK, has a hypothesis he calls the mass-energy-information equivalence. It states that information is the fundamental building block of the universe, and it has mass. This accounts for the missing mass within galaxies, thus eliminating the hypothesis of dark matter entirely.

Information theory 

To be clear, the idea that information is an essential building block of the universe isn't new. Classical Information Theory was first posited by Claude Elwood Shannon, the "father of the digital age" in the mid-20th century. The mathematician and engineer, well-known in scientific circles—but not so much outside of them, had a stroke of genius back in 1940. He realized that Boolean algebra coincided perfectly with telephone switching circuits. Soon, he proved that mathematics could be employed to design electrical systems.

Shannon was hired at Bell Labs to figure out how to transfer information over a system of wires. He wrote the bible on using mathematics to set up communication systems, thereby laying the foundation for the digital age. Shannon was also the first to define one unit of information as a bit.

There was perhaps no greater proponent of information theory than another unsung paragon of science, John Archibald Wheeler. Wheeler was part of the Manhattan Project, worked out the "S-Matrix" with Niels Bohr and helped Einstein develop a unified theory of physics. In his later years, he proclaimed, "Everything is information." Then he went about exploring connections between quantum mechanics and information theory.

He also coined the phrase "it from bit" or that every particle in the universe emanates from the information locked inside it. At the Santa Fe Institute in 1989, Wheeler announced that everything, from particles to forces to the fabric of spacetime itself "… derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely … from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits."

Part Einstein, part Landauer 

Vopson takes this notion one step further. He says that not only is information the essential unit of the universe but also that it is energy and has mass. To support this claim, he unifies and coordinates special relativity with the Landauer Principle. The latter is named after Rolf Landauer. In 1961, he predicted that erasing even one bit of information would release a tiny amount of heat, a figure which he calculated. Landauer said this proves information is more than just a mathematical quantity. This connects information to energy. Through experimental testing over the years, the Landauer Principle has held up.

Vopson says, "He [Landauer] first identified the link between thermodynamics and information by postulating that logical irreversibility of a computational process implies physical irreversibility." This indicates that information is physical, Vopson says, and demonstrates the link between information theory and thermodynamics.

In Vopson's theory, information, once created has "finite and quantifiable mass." It so far applies only to digital systems, but could very well apply to analogue and biological ones too, and even quantum or relativistic-moving systems. "Relativity and quantum mechanics are possible future directions of the mass-energy-information equivalence principle," he says.

In the paper published in the journal AIP Advances, Vopson outlines the mathematical basis for his hypothesis. "I am the first to propose the mechanism and the physics by which information acquires mass," he said, "as well as to formulate this powerful principle and to propose a possible experiment to test it."

The fifth state of matter

To measure the mass of digital information, you start with an empty data storage device. Next, you measure its total mass with a highly sensitive measuring apparatus. Then, you fill it and determine its mass. Next, you erase one file and evaluate it again. The trouble is, the "ultra-accurate mass measurement" device the paper describes doesn't exist yet. This would be an interferometer, something similar to LIGO. Or perhaps an ultrasensitive weighing machine akin to a Kibble balance.

"Currently, I am in the process of applying for a small grant, with the main objective of designing such an experiment, followed by calculations to check if detection of these small mass changes is even possible," Vopson says. "Assuming the grant is successful and the estimates are positive, then a larger international consortium could be formed to undertake the construction of the instrument." He added, "This is not a workbench laboratory experiment, and it would most likely be a large and costly facility." If eventually proved correct, Vopson will have discovered the fifth form of matter.

So, what's the connection to dark matter? Vopson says, "M.P. Gough published an article in 2008 in which he worked out … the number of bits of information that the visible universe would contain to make up all the missing dark matter. It appears that my estimates of information bit content of the universe are very close to his estimates."

  • On Tuesday, Thunberg gave a speech at an event in Davos, Switzerland.
  • She mainly spoke about the failure of world leaders to act on climate change.
  • Also speaking at Davos was President Donald Trump, who didn't mention Thunberg by name, but dismissed the "prophets of doom" who are calling for increased climate change policies.


Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist, spoke on Tuesday at an event hosted by The New York Times and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. As world leaders in business, politics and industry gathered in the small ski town to discuss the future of the global economy, Thunberg gave a speech criticizing these same leaders for failing to act on climate change.

"We demand at this year's World Economic Forum, participants from all companies, banks, institutions and governments: Immediately halt all investments in fossil fuel exploration and extraction," she said. "Immediately end all fossil fuel subsidies. And immediately and completely divest from fossil fuels. We don't want these things done by 2050, 2030, or even 2021. We want this done now."

You can watch her full speech below.

Immediately after her speech went online, commenters on YouTube and Twitter began criticizing Thunberg. That wasn't surprising. Thunberg has been a target of conservative criticism even since making her now-famous "How dare you" speech at a United Nations climate summit in September 2019. President Donald Trump has also joined in, tweeting that the young activist needs to "chill" and go see a "good old fashioned movie with a friend!"

On social media and YouTube, you're likely to run into a few common critiques of Thunberg. Here are three that deserve a closer look.

'Young people aren't really willing to make sacrifices'

There are a few common critiques of Thunberg in this comment: 1) Greta is all idealism without concrete pragmatic solutions; 2) the world needs to keep producing fossil fuel for power; 3) young people aren't willing to make sacrifices to reduce emissions.

The first critique has some truth to it, while the second seems like a "there is no alternative" fallacy. But let's focus on the third argument, which says that young people say they care about curbing climate change, but they aren't actually willing to make the necessary sacrifices. Is that true?

A 2019 survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation provides some clues. The results found that:

  • Almost two-thirds of teens who believe in human-caused climate change (55% of all teens) said they think they can help make a difference when it comes to reducing the effects of climate change.
  • 41% say they've taken action to reduce their own carbon footprint.
  • About 25% report engaging in some type of political action in the past 3 years to express their views on climate change, including 15% who say they've participated in a school walk-out, 13% who have participated in a protest or rally, and 12% who have contacted a government official.
But other research suggests that even people who care about environmental issues, and who take steps to mitigate their carbon footprint, are less likely to make lifestyle changes if they're inconvenient, such as reducing AC use in the summer or using public transportation instead of driving. Even if it turns out young people aren't willing to make sacrifices, that argument might be missing the point.
It assumes that personal sacrifice and responsibility are the main — or only — routes to reversing climate change. Sure, using plastic straws or learning to go without AC in the summer might make a small dent. But focusing solely on personal sacrifice takes the onus of responsibility off of industries and governments, and places it onto less powerful consumers. If the international community is going to significantly reduce emissions, it's going to require major actions on the part of both consumers and industry, possibly including global hard caps on resources.

Greta's voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was hypocritical

To attend a United Nations climate summit in New York City on September 23rd, Thunberg sailed from England to the U.S. on an emissions-free sailboat called Malizia II. Thunberg, who has helped to promote the "flight shaming" movement, was criticized because several crew members scheduled international flights just to facilitate the voyage. The general thrust of arguments like these is that Thunberg is a hypocrite who's unwilling to make the sacrifices she's calling for, or at least that she's naive to think she can operate in the modern world without leaving a carbon footprint.

Are these critics right to call out her supposed hypocrisy? Or is this a type of whataboutism that distracts from the core issue?

I'd argue that it is fair to call out Thunberg — if her lifestyle demonstrably doesn't line up with what she's preaching. After all, Thunberg is not only petitioning governments to do more on climate change, she's also encouraging the shaming of people who book commercial flights. If she's unwilling to make similar sacrifices, she should expected similar shame. What's more, Thunberg's personal environmental footprint is important for another reason, as Nives Dolsak and Aseem Prakash write for Forbes:

"...policy advocacy is effective if one walks the climate talk...The bottom line is that when people take personal responsibility, they begin to have skin in the game. Climate action becomes personal and it makes them more politically assertive in demanding policy changes."

Still, Thunberg's personal environmental footprint says absolutely nothing about the truthfulness of her claims about climate change. Thunberg, for example, could be a truck-driving, flight-booking environmental nightmare who makes it a point to leave the lights on wherever she goes, but that wouldn't change the science on climate change one bit. In short, it's worth considering potential hypocrisy, but it shouldn't distract from the core argument.

Children shouldn't lecture the public about climate change

Should the public be interested in what a teenager has to say about climate change? To answer that, you have to balance two key points. One is that Thunberg is a teenager who's not a scientist and doesn't have anything particularly novel to say about climate change or policies that might mitigate it. Climate science is complex. It takes years of study to understand the intricacies of how the climate works, and though scientists generally agree that human activity is warming the planet, they still have much to learn about the extent to which things like greenhouse gas emissions affect, say, storm patterns in the Caribbean.

Thunberg is not conducting such research. Rather, she takes research from climate scientists (mainly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and uses her pretty impressive rhetorical abilities to animate the public, especially young people.

"Speaking as a climate change scientist who has been working on this issue for 20 years and saying the same thing for 20 years, she is getting people to listen, which we have failed to do," Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development in Bangladesh, told NBC News. "I thought it was the most powerful speech I've ever seen."

But even if Thunberg is getting people to care about an important issue, that doesn't necessarily mean she's doing it in a productive way. (For example, Thunberg has said, and reiterated at Davos, that she wants people to "panic" about climate change.) What's more, it's possible that she is over-relying on the projections of the IPCC, which doesn't have a perfect track record.

Still, there's another angle to the "she's only a child" critique — one that has to do with the main stakeholders of the future of climate change. If mainstream predictions are correct, Thunberg and those her age are likely to suffer far more from the downstream consequences of climate change, compared to the industry leaders and policymakers working in 2020. Given that young people will inherit the world and societal structures that today's policymakers build, it seems unfair to say that their opinions — even if underdeveloped, or based on emotion — count for nothing.

  • A new strain of the coronavirus — similar to SARS — is spreading across China and to nearby countries, including the U.S..
  • Although it's relatively early on, the virus appears to be fairly infectious and capable of human-to-human transmission, a serious concern given the many travelers expected to visit China for the upcoming Lunar New Year.
  • The World Health Organization intends to convene an emergency committee in the near future to determine whether the outbreak should be considered a public health emergency of international concern.


Chinese officials recently confirmed that a new SARS-like virus is capable of human-to-human infection. The virus has killed at least six people so far and has left nearly 300 more sick.

Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, has canceled its upcoming Lunar New Year celebration over concerns about the hundreds of thousands of visitors that would visit the city and potentially spread the virus to other parts of the world.

The virus has already begun to spread — the respiratory illness has been detected in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzen, as well as in Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and Taiwan. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that the virus has appeared in the U.S. as well. A male traveler in Snohomish County, Washington state, reached out to local health facilities after he began presented pneumonia-like symptoms on January 15th.

The spread has also been encouraged by the less-than-rapid response from the Chinese government, which only began checking travelers' temperatures on January 14th despite learning of the virus in mid-December. Furthermore, millions of visitors are expected to travel to China for the Lunar New Year, presenting an opportunity for the virus to spread even further.

A new coronavirus

Wuhan coronavirus

A photo of the closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which has been linked to several cases of the coronavirus.

Getty Images

The virus resembles SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which killed 774 people in 2002 and 2003 across several Asian countries. Like SARS, the new virus is a coronavirus, so-named because of the bulbous projections encircling the viroid that resemble a royal crown or a solar corona. The Wuhan coronavirus, dubbed 2019-nCoV, appears to be an entirely novel strain that has not been detected in humans before. Scientists believe that the virus's primary source was an animal, but it is clear now that the virus is capable of spreading between humans, causing fever, shortness of breath, a cough, and other respiratory issues.

There is evidence to suggest that the disease could be highly infectious as well; one patient is believed to have infected 14 medical professionals in the hospital where they were being treated.

China's and the WHO's response

microscopic view of coronavirus by the CDC

Handout photo from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a microscopic view of the coronavirus. According to the CDC.

(Photo by CDC/Getty Images)

Although some have criticized the Chinese response as being sluggish, it has acted far more quickly than it did during the 2002 SARS outbreak. After the SARS virus first appeared, the Communist Party of China discouraged state media from reporting on the virus and delayed in reporting information to the World Health Organization (WHO) for months.

That being said, there is some concern that the Chinese government is underreporting the figures associated with the disease. In an interview with CNN, researcher Neil Ferguson claimed that the number of cases outside of China suggest that more individuals are infected than is being reported. "We calculate," he said, "based on flight and population data, that there is only a 1 in 574 chance that a person infected in Wuhan would travel overseas before they sought medical care. This implies there might have been over 1,700 cases in Wuhan so far."

"There are many unknowns," continued Ferguson, "meaning the uncertainty range around this estimate goes from 190 cases to over 4,000. But the magnitude of these numbers suggests that substantial human-to-human transmission cannot be ruled out. Heightened surveillance, prompt information sharing and enhanced preparedness are recommended."

The WHO plans to convene an emergency committee on January 22nd to determine whether the outbreak can be considered a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, which is defined as "an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response." A similar determination was made regarding the 2002 SARS outbreak.

Under international health regulations, the declaration of a PHEIC requires states to respond quickly to the emergency. While it is characterized as a last resort, declaring a PHEIC in and of itself offers the WHO few powers beyond the ability to form an advisory emergency committee on the crisis.

Given that Wuhan is a city of 11 million people and that the virus has already spread beyond China's borders, such a declaration seems merited. With a PHEIC in place, hopefully the WHO will be able to work with the Chinese government to minimize the spread of the disease prior to the upcoming Lunar New Year.

coronavirus

A notice for passengers from Wuhan, China is displayed near a quarantine station at Narita airport in Japan. Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare recently confirmed its first case of pneumonia infected with a new coronavirus from Wuhan City, China.

Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images