Insights & Expertise

Saint Joseph’s Faculty Offer Insights on Coronavirus Spread and Response

by Rachel Kipp

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

This CDC illustration shows the ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Image courtesy of the CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM

Coronavirus has disrupted everything in its path as it grows into a worldwide outbreak, from daily life and health to the stock market and global economy. 

Scientists, public health workers and governments are still struggling to get a handle on the virus — and to stem the tide of misinformation as the public seeks to protect itself. 

We asked three Saint Joseph’s experts — James Carter, Ph.D., a professor of history, Sally Kuykendall, Ph.D., a professor of health services, and Michael McCann, Ph.D., a professor of biology — to share insights from their areas of expertise that can shed some light on the coronavirus’ trajectory so far — and some key questions going forward.

Here are four key points from those conversations:

The Economic Impact in China Will Be Significant — and That Has Worldwide Implications

After years of meteoritic growth, the Chinese economy had already started to slow before the coronavirus epidemic began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. China essentially shut down in an effort to contain coronavirus, creating further economic disruption that will be felt worldwide, says Carter, whose research specialties include modern China and the interaction between modern China and the West. 

“Even if this passes pretty quickly, there will be a significant impact,” says Carter. “If it lingers, it could have a really devastating impact. Some question whether this is China’s Chernobyl, which was a moment that undermined public confidence in the Soviet Union and contributed to the collapse of the state a few years later.” 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has more authority and more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong — “he’s ramped up the surveillance state, ramped up censorship, ramped up social control — something like this, which is fundamentally uncontrollable, flies in the face of all the tools in the toolbox that the government has been using since Xi Jinping came to power,” Carter says. 

China is the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. and the world’s largest trading partner, Carter says, which is why the economic implications of the virus were being felt in the U.S. stock market even as few domestic cases of the virus had been identified. 

“The global economy is closely connected to the Chinese economy — it’s all the same economy at some level,” Carter says.

Something like this, which is fundamentally uncontrollable, flies in the face of all the tools in the toolbox that the [Chinese] government has been using since Xi Jinping came to power.”

James Carter, Ph.D.

Professor of History

Big Events May Be Canceled -- and Many May Choose to Stay Home 

The Chinese government essentially quarantined the entire city of Wuhan, which has a population of about 11 million, in an effort to contain the virus. A similar response would be a lot more difficult in the U.S., Carter points out. 

“In China people aren’t going to be happy if they can’t leave, but they’re much more likely to accept it than in the U.S. — people here would just lose their minds over the idea of the government telling them they couldn’t travel,” Carter says. 

But even if the U.S. government doesn’t shut down entire cities, or take the less drastic step of calling for the cancellation of school or large events, people may choose to just stay home, McCann says.

“That’s a good thing for these kinds of diseases,” he says. “Part of the trouble is that we know a lot about influenza and the common cold. We don’t know whether this virus is really stable on non-living objects or really unstable; we just don’t have enough information to know how we should respond. Places shutting down or schools disinfecting all the desks is a reasonable, prudent approach in the absence of concrete knowledge. Why take the chance?”

Everyone should be prepared for a potential disruption of their daily routines — and the consequences of not doing so are clear from past pandemics, says Kuykendall, a former critical care nurse. 

“With the Bubonic Plague [in the 14th century], churches called people into worship services, thereby spreading the disease,” she says. “With the Spanish flu of 1918, the government was trying to raise money to finance World War I. Philadelphia had a parade to sell war bonds. The parade brought together thousands of people and within three days, all of the hospitals were filled.”

Places shutting down or schools disinfecting all the desks is a reasonable, prudent approach in the absence of concrete knowledge. Why take the chance?”

Michael McCann, Ph.D.

Professor of Biology

Knowns and Unknowns

Even though scientists are still trying to figure out exactly how the virus spreads, the advice for prevention is the same for any airborne viral infection, such as the flu or the common cold: Wash your hands, avoid touching your face and stay home if you are sick. 

“People should listen to advice from places like the CDC; they should not listen to YouTube advice,” McCann says. “All of these conspiracy theories are so harmful because people get distracted and they don’t know what to believe. Believe what people like the CDC and the World Health Organization tell you — there’s no plot, no evil conspiracy here to get people sick. Everyone wants to see this thing end as soon as possible.”  

Public health experts in recent days have cautioned people from buying surgical masks in an effort to stay infection free. For one thing, the masks are needed by healthcare workers. For another, most people don’t use them properly and end up spreading germs anyway, Kuykendall says. 

“All the things we tell people to do have a science behind them. It’s about educating yourself, but really about educating yourself with the right sources of information,” Kuykendall says. 

All the things we tell people to do have a science behind them. It’s about educating yourself, but really about educating yourself with the right sources of information."

Sally Kuykendall, Ph.D.

Professor of Health Services

A Vaccine Can Help — But it’s Not a Quick Fix

Even if a vaccine for coronavirus was developed today, it would take at least a year before it can be proven effective and safe and to scale up production so it can be administered widely, McCann says. 

“Down the road, having a vaccine is valuable in case this reemerges, and then you can go in quickly and immunize everyone where there’s been an outbreak,” McCann says. “It’s valuable to pursue development, but it’s not necessarily useful for this outbreak right now.” 

Adds Kuykendall: “Pathogens are sneaky little organisms; they’re constantly evolving and changing to try to survive… You can’t come up with one vaccine that will take care of everything.” 

Saint Joseph’s Response

Saint Joseph’s has developed a multi-departmental response plan and has created a web page with announcements about the University’s response to the global coronavirus outbreak. The site contains continually updated information about the spread of coronavirus from the CDC.