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Wuhan coronavirus confirmed to be transmissible between humans

The new strain of coronavirus that has spread across Asia is causing concern ahead of China's Lunar New Year.

Chinese children wear protective masks as they wait to board trains at Beijing Railway station on January 21, 2020. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to nearly 300 in mainland China on Tuesday as health officials stepped up efforts to contain the spread of the pneumonia-like disease which medicals experts confirmed can be passed from human to human.

(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
  • 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

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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