Reason Roundup

Coronavirus: Is It Time To Panic?

Plus: PragerU loses YouTube lawsuit, layoffs abound in Silicon Valley, and more...


Media say yes, experts say no. COVID-19, known as the coronvirus, will wreak widespread changes on American society and usher in "the end of affluence politics," suggests Matt Stoller in Wired. "Disruption to everyday life might be severe," Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned on Tuesday. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would be the coronavirus czar.

Cases continue to rise in China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Iran, with new cases cropping up in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Switzerland, and elsewhere. And countries around the world are shutting down schools and travel in response.

So is it time to panic?

The number of U.S. cases remains low. The CDC has confirmed 60 cases, with only one (discovered yesterday) of unknown origin. Fourteen cases are in people who recently traveled to China or were in close contact with someone who had. "The rest were either repatriated individuals who fled the vicinity of the virus's origin in China on State Department-chartered planes or else were rescued from the disastrous Diamond Princess cruise ship outbreak," notes Olivia Messer at The Daily Beast.

And while experts are expecting more cases, many are not that worried. For instance, the UCLA epidemiologist Jeffrey Klausner told Messer:

It's possible to say suddenly we'll have 20 or 30 cases from one particular place. People should expect that, but people should not be overly concerned about that. If we were testing everyone for the common cold, we would find hundreds of thousands of cases.

Alessandro Vespignani, an infectious disease modeler at Northeastern University, told Science:

This has a range of outcomes from the equivalent of a very bad flu season to something that is perhaps a little bit worse than that.

Worldwide, the average death rate for the disease remains unclear, confounded by both uneven reporting and a constantly shifting number of confirmed cases. Death rates may be also be inflated if less severe cases of the virus are going unconfirmed.

"In Italy, roughly 3% of the confirmed number of cases ended in death as of Monday," notes Kenneth Rapoza at Forbes. "But the number of new cases jumped early Tuesday to 270," bringing the death rate down to 2.6 percent.

In South Korea, the fatality rate so far has been 0.9 percent; in Iran, by contrast, it's an astounding 14 percent. "Outside medical experts said reporting on the total number of cases of infection in Iran was possibly lagging behind reporting on deaths," says NBC.

An analysis of coronavirus cases in China found a fatality rate of 2.3 percent, though rates varied wildly by age. "No deaths occurred in those aged 9 years and younger, but cases in those aged 70 to 79 years had an 8% fatality rate and those aged 80 years and older had a fatality rate of 14.8%," reports MarketWatch.

It's hard to get a clear picture of how coronavirus compares to previous high-profile disease threats, since so many people benefit from either spreading or squelching fear and so many others seem intent on using it to push pet political issues (e.g., "Coronavirus makes the case for Medicare-for-all").

"The World Health Organization (WHO) still avoided using the word 'pandemic' to describe the burgeoning crisis today, instead talking about 'epidemics in different parts of the world,'" note Science writers Jon Cohen and Kai Kupferschmidt. "But many scientists say that regardless of what it's called, the window for containment is now almost certainly shut."

Some think containment was never a realistic option to begin with:

many epidemiologists have claimed that travel bans buy little extra time, and WHO doesn't endorse them. The received wisdom is that bans can backfire, for example, by hampering the flow of necessary medical supplies and eroding public trust. And as the list of affected countries grows, the bans will become harder to enforce and will make less sense: There is little point in spending huge amounts of resources to keep out the occasional infected person if you already have thousands in your own country.

In any event, "the fight now is to mitigate, keep the health care system working, and don't panic," Vespignani told Science.


No, YouTube isn't the government, a federal court affirmed yesterday. The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Prager University, which objected to the restricted viewing conditions that YouTube placed on some of the organization's videos. "PragerU runs headfirst into two insurmountable barriers—the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent," writes Ninth Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown. More here.


San Francisco startups are shedding employees rapidly. "More than 30 startups have slashed more than 8,000 jobs over the past four months," The New York Times reports. It's particularly bad in the legal weed industry:

Perhaps the most drastic turn has happened among cannabis start-ups, which rode a wave of exuberance in recent years as countries like Canada and Uruguay and several U.S. states loosened laws that criminalized the drug. Last year, more than 300 cannabis companies raised $2.6 billion in venture capital, according to PitchBook.

Then in mid-2019, investors started doubting whether the industry could deliver on its lofty promises when some publicly traded cannabis companies were tarred by illegal growing scandals and regulatory crackdowns. Start-ups like Caliva, a cannabis producer; Eaze, a delivery service; and NorCal Cannabis Company, another producer, have together cut hundreds of members of their staffs in recent months.

"A lot of companies are not going to make it through this year," said Brendan Kennedy, chief executive of Tilray, a cannabis producer that went public in 2018. Mr. Kennedy said he was stopping spending on new projects to survive the shakeout.

Notes SFist:

The poster child of the fall is probably the billion-dollar bust of WeWork…and we told you last week that cash-bleeding delivery services DoorDash, Postmates, and UberEats have all discussed mergers. The Times reminds us there have been significant recent layoffs at 23andMe, Quora and Mozilla, plus a few of those robot companies we love to hate like robot barista startup Cafe X and robot pizza purveyors Zume, which has ceased delivery after burning through more than $400 million in investments….

The once-incredibly trendy scooter sector is taking its lumps too, as the biggest player Lime has pulled out of cities and laid off staff.


  • The FBI has arrested a Cincinnati city council member for allegedly taking bribes.
  • Canadian fashion CEO Peter Nygard is being investigated for allegations of sex trafficking. His spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that Nygard "welcomes the federal investigation and expects his name to be cleared. He has not been charged, is not in custody and is cooperating with the investigation."