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National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Nancy Messonnier speaks during a press conference on the coordinated response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The risk of U.S. residents becoming infected by the coronavirus that's devastating China remains low right now, public health officials said Monday, even as there's growing pressure to ramp up U.S. and international pandemic preparedness.

The latest: There are at least 2,886 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV in 16 countries or regions and 82 deaths in China. The U.S. has five confirmed cases with 110 people in 26 states under investigation so far, 32 of whom tested negative, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"At this time in the U.S., the virus is not spreading in the community ... the risk remains low."
— Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at a press briefing

Reality check: At the moment, the influenza outbreak is more dangerous to Americans. The CDC says flu activity remains high — this season so far has an estimated 15 million illnesses, 140,000 hospitalizations and 8,200 deaths (including 54 children) in the U.S. as of Jan. 18.

"Absolutely, the flu is a bigger risk for Americans than the coronavirus, right now."
— Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease expert, tells Axios

Yes, but: Because this is a new coronavirus, and there are many "unknowns" about it, there's the potential for a pandemic, which the CDC acknowledged on Sunday.

  • And, if the Chinese health ministry is correct when they say people begin shedding the virus before showing symptoms, this could be a game-changer.
  • "This would be very unusual, and very concerning," as a similar coronavirus, SARS, was not contagious before symptoms appeared, Nolan says.
  • But, Messonnier says they have not seen this in the U.S., where so far all confirmed cases have been people who've traveled in Wuhan.

What's happening now: The U.S. will continue screening passengers coming indirectly from Wuhan at five airports, conduct contact tracing for all confirmed patients to monitor for new infections, and publicize research via GenBank so labs can develop targeted diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

What we know so far: It's early days in investigating this virus, so some reports may be based on too few samples or show an incomplete picture.

  • It "doesn't look like the virus has mutated" yet, at least when the U.S. compares the genetic sequences of China's initial sequencing of the virus and the first two American cases, Messonnier says. If it continues to mutate slowly, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines are likely to be more effective.
  • The incubation period appears to be around 2–14 days, she adds.

What we don't know: Per Nolan, who is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health, researchers need to determine...

  • What is the animal "reservoir" where the virus first transmitted to humans, so it can be culled.
  • How contagious is this virus — such as looking at how fast it "reproduces," called R-naught. One initial report says the average infection rate is about 2.6 people per infected person — this is higher than SARS' rate of 2.0 but less contagious than measles, which is around 12-18. "In general, you want the R-naught to be below one," Messonnier says.
  • Whether super-spreaders, or people who shed the virus more than most, are transmitting the virus to others. Reports point to the possibility that one person infected 15 health workers in China.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

9 hours ago - Health

FDA advisory panel recommends Pfizer boosters for those 65 and older

A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Key Biscayne Community Center on Aug. 24, 2021. Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key Food and Drug Administration advisory panel on Friday overwhelmingly voted against recommending Pfizer vaccine booster shots for younger Americans, but unanimously recommended approving the third shots for individuals 65 and older, as well as those at high-risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: While the votes are non-binding, and the FDA must still make a final decision, Friday's move pours cold water on the Biden administration's plan to begin administering boosters to most individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine later this month.

9 hours ago - World

France recalls ambassadors from U.S. and Australia over submarine deal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (C), and French ambassador to the U.S. Philippe Etienne. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

France has taken the extraordinary step of recalling its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia after both countries blindsided their French allies with a new military pact and submarine contract, the French Foreign Ministry announced on Friday.

The backstory: While sealing an agreement with the U.S. and U.K. to acquire nuclear submarines, Australia ripped up an existing $90 billion submarine deal with France. That led senior French officials to accuse the U.S. of a "stab in the back."

Updated 9 hours ago - World

In reversal, Pentagon now says drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians

Caskets for the dead are carried towards the gravesite as relatives and friends attend a mass funeral for members of a family that is said to have been killed in a U.S. drone airstrike, in Kabul on Aug. 30. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A U.S. drone strike launched on Aug. 29 killed 10 civilians in Afghanistan, including seven children, rather than the Islamic State extremists the Biden administration claimed it targeted, the Pentagon said Friday.

Why it matters: U.S. Central Command said at the time that officials "know" the drone strike "disrupted an imminent ISIS-K threat" to Kabul's airport, and that they were "confident we successfully hit the target."