Last week, the Columbia Mailman School hosted the seventh annual New York City Epidemiology Forum. The all-day event brought epidemiologists from local universities and government agencies to share their research and insights on some of the world’s most serious health challenges—not least of all, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
Presenting an overview of the fast-moving outbreak and the struggle to contain it, Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology, noted that Columbia Mailman epidemiologists have been meaningfully involved in all the major coronavirus outbreaks—SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19. A 2017 study by Epidemiology Professor Simon Anthony identified bats as a reservoir for a diverse array of coronaviruses, some of which the paper noted could be transmitted to humans. According to Morse, these findings “should have been a wakeup call” that another coronavirus outbreak would wreak havoc on the world.
Morse explained that the COVID-19 outbreak has spread faster than SARS because the newer virus is more easily be passed person to person. Comparing the containment effort to “putting a finger in the dam,” he said, “the question is how long before the dam bursts. We’re seeing cracks already. Sooner or later, probably sooner, we will see [COVID-19] everywhere.”
One of the biggest unanswered questions about COVID-19 is just how deadly it is. According to Morse, current estimates of around 3 percent—about the same as the 1918 flu pandemic—may considerably overestimate the COVID-19’s virulence since experts expect that there are a large number of undocumented cases with mild infections. “This is likely going to resemble a very nasty flu pandemic rather than something like the movie ‘Contagion,’” he said.