Novel transmission of the novel coronavirus

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Viral on Chinese social media:

The Chinese writing added to the photograph says:

Shǒuzōng rén chuán niú sǐwáng bìnglì
First case of death from human transmission to a bovine

Huá'ěrjiē quèzhěn bìnglì
Confirmed case on Wall Street

A novel approach to the novel coronavirus!

Around here it's more like panic and hysteria.

Food, bum wad / tp, and sanitizers and disinfectants are being grabbed off the shelves of Trader Joe's so fast that it's almost impossible to keep them stocked.  Lines of customers extend out into the parking lot and fill it up.

At Walmart, people were standing in long, long lines for hours past midnight.

Penn (and other schools I know about) is closing for the semester.  Students are leaving.  Many of my students from China have already gone back.  They are under the impression that things are better there, that the disease is under control.

That's so ironic, since it was China who created [poor word choice] this pandemic, and — considering all the uncertainties and instabilities reigning there — they are far from being out of the woods.

Etc., etc.

What's fanning the hysteria?

Put it in perspective:

As a wise colleague advises, "Keep calm and carry on."

Selected readings

[h.t. Bryan Van Norden]


  1. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 12:22 pm

    That "Pause a minute" info is feeling increasingly out of date (and out of touch), given that Italy has reported 368 deaths in the last 24 hours. Panic and hysteria aren't warranted, but neither is downplaying the magnitude of the rapidly growing global health crisis.

  2. Jim Breen said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 12:29 pm

    Re the "They are under the impression that things are better there, that the disease is under control", my wife was talking yesterday to an acquaintance from Hong Kong, who is in regular contact with family there. She related that a common view in HK is that the death rate in the PRC is far higher than reported and that the authorities are frantically manipulating the figures to give the impression it's under control.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 1:07 pm

    She related that a common view in HK is that the death rate in the PRC is far higher than reported and that the authorities are frantically manipulating the figures to give the impression it's under control.

    This is not a common view on the mainland. You might think "of course not", but mainlanders relied heavily on 非官方的 sources to get a picture of what was going on initially, distrusting official accounts.

  4. Jonathan M Smith said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 2:21 pm

    "It was China who created this pandemic"
    This calls for a rewrite.
    "26,283 people died of Cancer [sic]" on Feb. 10 in China
    Really? Close to 10 million cancer deaths per year then? Source?
    What Ben Zimmer said…

  5. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 4:12 pm

    According to estimates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in 2018 there were 17.0 million new cancer cases and 9.5 million cancer deaths worldwide.

    Global Cancer Facts & Figures | American Cancer Society

  6. Ellen Kozisek said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 4:18 pm

    @Jonathan M. Smith

    I took those stats to be world-wide, and a quick Google search, plus math, confirms that. 9.6 million cancer deaths per year world-wide, which comes to 26,283. (9.6 divided by 365.25)

    The ambiguity there I suppose is a linguistic topic.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 4:21 pm

    Glad our figures match so closely, Ellen.

  8. Jonathan M Smith said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    Ah, thanks Ellen and VHM. The graphic is apples vs. oranges in various respects, but that particular one eluded me…

  9. alex said,

    March 15, 2020 @ 6:39 pm

    But "Did video really kill the radio star?

    I don't the answer to that question but Tingxie killed the ……?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 12:21 am

    An informed critique of the "Pause a minute……" article. The article itself is one of the worst examples of abused statistics that I have ever encountered, comparing and contrasting deaths from a single cause in one country (China) with deaths from a variety of other causes world-wide. Linear interpolation alone would require the quoted statistics to be scaled by 18.47% (population of China divided by total world population), with error bars also to be taken into account (non-uniform distribution of deaths from the causes cited).

  11. Ellen K. said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 3:19 am

    I think the idea behind "108 persons in CHINA" was meant to be 108 persons world-wide, all in China. Of course, "worst day so far" at the time (whenever that was) hasn't stayed that way.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 3:55 am

    I don't think that hypothesis can hold, Ellen — deaths from CV outside China were reported as early as January 13th (Thailand) and January 16th (Japan), so it seems somewhat unlikely that almost a month later no deaths from CV other than in China were taking place.

  13. Colin Danby said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 6:13 am

    I agree that people should not hoard toilet paper.

    Beyond that, the "pause a minute" graphic is deeply stupid, and its circulation is irresponsible.

  14. Ernie in Berkeley said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 6:16 am

    I'm also dismayed at the "China … created this pandemic" phrase. It originated there, probably, but nobody in China created it. Is this Victor Mair's comment, or is it taken from somewhere else?

  15. Jonathan said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 8:57 am

    I'm used to seeing the foolish ideas that result when competent engineers try to do physics, or when smart physicist attempt philosophy. Now I guess I've got add "linguists of great knowledge address epidemiology and public health".

    "What's fanning the hysteria?". The fact that this strain of coronavirus is "novel", i.e. brand new, so there seems to be no baseline of immunity to it, it seems to be very contagious (compare that with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes), and that it seems to have a very high fatality rate. Because testing data is so poor it's hard to pin down the value, but it's clearly much worse than seasonal flu.

    It's a good idea to counsel against panic, but "carry on" points to living no differently from the way you did before coronavirus, while all the best minds are saying "We are going to have to make serious changes to deal with this and minimize the harm." Are you providing ammunition to those who would dismiss that with your remarks? Maybe don't make them then.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 9:08 am

    Certain actions (or, in some respects, lack of action) by the Chinese Communist Party exacerbated the spread of the pandemic.

  17. Martha said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 12:03 pm

    "Pause a minute" reminds me of Neil Degrasse Tyson's tweet about school shootings. (

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    March 16, 2020 @ 9:22 pm

    Ernie, Victor : "Trump sparks anger by calling coronavirus the 'Chinese virus'".

  19. Victor Mair said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 12:59 am

    Seasonal flu kills 291,000 to 646,000 people worldwide each year, according to a new estimate that's higher than the previous one of 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year. The new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups were published Dec. 13 in The Lancet medical journal.

    Flu Kills 646,000 People Worldwide Each Year: Study › script › main › art

    Most estimates of the number of worldwide deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus are somewhat over 7,000.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 2:01 am

    "Seasonal flu kills 291,000 to 646,000 people worldwide each year".

    "Most estimates of the number of worldwide deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus are somewhat over 7,000" over a period of less than two months (21st January – 16th March).

    Furthermore, the most recent WHO data (see graph) shows that cases of Covid-19 are currently increasingly exponentially; I for one would not even like to attempt to extrapolate from less than two month's data to predict the total deaths from Covid-19 over the coming year.

  21. Jonathan said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 4:28 am

    What is needed is for people to understand how serious COVID-19 is and to calmly make the necessary changes in their lives to reduce the harm it will cause. Minimizing the seriousness of it, through deceptive citing of numbers and deliberately ignoring important features of it, strikes me as "actions" that will have "exacerbated the spread of the pandemic".

    I'm glad to see you have edited the post to acknowledge your "poor word choice". I hope you will add a header and acknowledge the whole post as a poor choice — maybe it was brought on by frustration at seeing others panic, but I don't think this post helps.

  22. Colin Danby said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    I suggest for some of the latest.

    Yesterday's Imperial College study with Neil Ferguson as lead author
    can give some sense of the numbers. The worst-case baseline (no policy intervention at all) which would produce 2.2 million deaths in the US and a half million in Great Britain. The paper then walks you through the possible mitigating results of a variety of policy interventions. So yes, with serious interventions deaths will be much less than those numbers, but the seasonal flu this is not, because (a) it has a much higher death rate (b) it's a new virus for which humanity has no resistance. Most of us will get it sooner or later.

  23. Colin Danby said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 10:01 am

    Two more links and I will leave this alone. This physician's writeup, though it has much specialist jargon, gives you a good feel for how cases that end up in hospital progress:

    And this relatively optimistic writeup ( is pretty good for getting a feel for the numbers, and the phenomena going on underneath the numbers.

  24. eub said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 4:11 pm

    Quoting past numbers is silly. What's relevant is future numbers.

    Our monkey brains really don't handle exponential growth, do they.

  25. F said,

    March 17, 2020 @ 6:24 pm

    Maybe here's another way of seeing it.

    The province of Bergamo in Lombardy has about 1 million inhabitants. So far Bergamo has had 3993 diagnosed cases of COVID-19. If the death rate per diagnosis is the same as in Lombardy as a whole, then about 400 of them have died.

    If the entire United States was hit as badly as Bergamo has been in the past month, that would already give 120,000 deaths.

    Let's try to take action before we get there.

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