Houston, we have a problem!
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are only five known coronaviruses that can infect humans. Most of those variations can be somewhat common, causing a mild-to-moderate upper respiratory infection and then dissipating. One not-so-particularly-nice version of the coronavirus is the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, or SARS-CoV, which, in 2003, would go on to infect about 8,000 people and result in nearly 800 deaths. Not to mention that it's the only coronavirus that also often develops lower respiratory infections, which are prone to more complications.
Now, it looks like it may be time to officially add a sixth coronavirus to the mix: Novel coronavirus, or nCoV.
Is it time to start worrying?
As of yesterday, this new coronavirus had been linked to 32 cases in the Middle East and Europe over the past couple of months and has proven quite deadly, claiming more than half of its victims' lives (18). Worse yet, panic is spreading following comments from the virologist who discovered the coronavirus last year, Ali Mohamed Zaki, that he anticipates it will become an epidemic at some point. The World Health Organization concurs to some extent, noting that it believes human-to-human transmission is possible, although only with prolonged, close contact. To add icing on the cake, in vitro studies -- including data from Zaki's own work -- indicated possible transmission between species (i.e., humans to pigs and bats, for instance).
That isn't very encouraging news given that the SARS outbreak in 2003 wasn't really dealt with from a medical or scientific standpoint, but more by a simple "cross our fingers and quarantine" method. It does help to know that Zaki believes that the virus may prove to be less potent by the time it becomes an epidemic, but call me not as convinced.
Say hello to personalized care
If there is a glass-half-full perspective on this new virus, it's that it gives multiple industries an opportunity to shine.
In particular, I feel like this is the perfect opportunity for genetic analysis companies to show off their technology and help researches unlock a possible vaccination for nCoV. Although genetic solutions have offered only limited effectiveness beyond the scope of diagnostic examinations and in some instances of personalized cancer care, genome decoding devices could be paramount to helping scientists quickly squash the chance of a global outbreak.
One of the biggest factors working in researchers' favor is the precipitous drop in genome sequencing costs. In March 2003, it cost $53.8 million to decode the human genome, and to top it off, it took weeks to get the results. As of January 2013, the cost to decode the same genome was down 99.99% to just $5,671 -- and it can be done in just a day or less!
Two names worth considering here are Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE:TMO) and Illumina (NASDAQ:ILMN). Thermo Fisher makes the list as it's in the process of purchasing Life Technologies (UNKNOWN:LIFE.DL) for $13.6 billion. In early 2012, Life Technologies introduced the Benchtop Ion Proton Sequencer, which is capable of delivering same-day genome results for just $1,000! Illumina, on the other hand, has researchers' bases covered from all ends. It offers four high-end sequencing machines, a lower-priced sequencer (MiSeq), and can handle cloud-based data to formulate decoding. These two companies could be the cornerstone of nCoV research!
Increasing health consciousness
While I'd never like to see anyone get sick, the novel coronavirus is also going to heighten health awareness. In 2003, China managed to beat back the outbreak by quarantining its citizens and through the use of surgical masks. While antibacterial usage is fine and dandy, it wouldn't surprise me if there were a drastic reduction in disease transmission from the use of surgical masks or respirators. That's where 3M (NYSE:MMM) comes in.
Yes, the same company that makes Post-it Notes is also the same company that makes many of the surgical masks and respirators you can buy. Furthermore, 3M already services a global market, meaning that its products are easily accessible throughout the world. Now keep in mind, 3M is a global company with multiple segments, so the bottom-line bump here won't be huge, but it's not negligible, either.
The road to collaboration
The other aspect that could be intriguing is whether researchers can successfully manufacture an nCoV vaccine.
Shortly after the 2003 outbreak, SARS vaccines were proven somewhat effective in animal testing (e.g., mice) in reducing the numbers of SARS-CoV particles found in the lungs. However, long-term studies of various SARS vaccines continue to show complications that aren't worth the risk. While the future of SARS prevention might be in intranasal treatments, currently, there is no vaccine.
That's where genetic analysis and pharmaceutical research teams need to team up to share information. Usually the pharmaceutical business is cutthroat; but a deadly virus with pandemic potential on par with nCoV could cause research teams to do something amazing and actually team up for the good of the world.
We actually saw teamwork work out marvelously last year when a new strain of swine flu infected about 300 people and killed one. Novartis (NYSE:NVS), teaming up with the J. Craig Venter Institute in California, used recombinant technology that allowed it to make artificial genes based on flu virus strain genomes found in an online database, and cut the time from research to vaccine to just one week. Clearly it's going to be a bit more challenging than that creating a vaccine for nCoV, but the technology is certainly there to make it happen.
The waiting game
Now there's nothing more we as investors and observers can do but watch and wait to see how this spans out. It's extremely tough to tell what might happen with the nCoV because we only have 32 confirmed cases to work with. What is for certain, though, is that the panic level surrounding this new coronavirus is rising at a rapid pace and is being fueled by its high mortality rate. As investors and health-conscious observers, we have no choice but to be prepared and keep our eyes peeled for any additional information.
Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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