Image for Coronavirus Outbreak Could Morph into Political Sneaker Wave

The spread of the coronavirus has sent ripples through the global economy and threatens to infect the 2020 presidential election debate.

As the outbreak in China seems to ebb, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning to Americans to brace for an outbreak here. “It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country, but a question of when this will happen,” says Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “We are asking the American public to prepare for the expectation that this might be bad.”

Serious outbreaks of the potentially lethal virus in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia caused financial markets to tank this week, including on Wall Street, which suffered a 3.5 percent one-day plunge in value.

Unexpected events have a habit of cropping up in presidential election years. For example, President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election bid was crippled by the Iran hostage crisis and the grain embargo he imposed after Russia invaded Afghanistan. A potential global pandemic could be this year’s electoral surprise. How the incumbent president and his challengers address that prospect could become a major election debate talking point.

While on his trip to India, President Trump downplayed the threat of the coronavirus in the United States. “I think that’s a problem that’s going to go away,” he said. Later Trump tweeted, “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!” He also said a vaccine for coronavirus was imminent.

That was before world stock markets plunged, the CDC issued its dire warning and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander predicted a coronavirus vaccine is at least 18 months away.

The coronavirus could be a political sneaker wave if the CDC warning proves true and thousands of Americans contract the virus and the death toll soars. Politicians who pooh-poohed the threat could face a backlash. The Iranian health minister who proclaimed all was well in his country was diagnosed the next day with the virus. A US Department of Homeland Security official was grilled this week by a GOP senator over his seeming lack of up-to-date or accurate information about the coronavirus.

Seven Democratic presidential candidates will be on the debate stage tonight in South Carolina and one or more of them is certain to criticize Trump’s dismissal of a potential pandemic. Senator Elizabeth Warren has already tweeted, “The Trump administration is absolutely bungling the response to coronavirus, putting our public health and our economy at risk. This is why we need a real plan and an adult in charge.”

Innovation will be on stage, too. In the wake of news that three Chinese doctors have died from the virus, RealWear, based in Vancouver, is collaborating with the Chinese on a head-mounted display that allows doctors to tend patients remotely. With travel bans increasing, this would expand the reach of medical providers to treat patients and train colleagues, as well as to avoid crowded waiting rooms.

According to RealWear CEO Andy Lowery, the company has not previously marketed its wearable computer gear for medical use, but it responded when Chinese officials approached them. “They are moving so fast in trying to figure out ways to combat this,” Lowery told the Portland Business Journal. The software was developed by RealWear engineers in China. The company had devices on hand because it has manufacturing in Shanghai.

A clinical trial is underway in Nebraska for an experimental coronavirus drug that so far involves one patient who was quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. Several US drug manufacturers are reportedly working on a coronavirus vaccine. At least one drug has been submitted to the National Institutes for Health to begin testing. The challenge of finding a viable vaccine could be compounded by disrupted supply chains with Chinese drug makers.

The World Health Organization says the incidence of new coronavirus cases in China, where the outbreak began, has dropped from more than 2,000 per day to 508 earlier this week. WHO credited strict measures imposed by the Chinese in apparently arresting the spread of the virus. Beijing imposed rules to prohibit workers eating face-to-face, require only half of employees to show up for work everyday and keep at least one meter away from fellow workers.

The outbreak in northern Italy stunned many observers, leading Venice to cancel the remainder of its popular Mardi Gras festivities and turning Milan into a ghost city. So far, coronavirus has infected 80,000 people in 37 countries, causing 2,600 deaths. Italy has reported 322 infections and a death toll of 10, with new cases as far away as Sicily. New cases also have been reported in Spain, Austria, Croatia, Austria, Switzerland and France.

The first confirmed US case of coronavirus was reported in Washington. That patient has been treated and released. Oregon officials reversed course and are now announcing virus-related statistics on a weekly basis. According to the first report, 76 people in Oregon are being monitored for virus-like symptoms, but so far there have been no confirmed coronavirus cases.