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Commuters wear masks while walking through a subway station in New York, U.S., on Monday, March 9, 2020. In a series of tweets Sunday, New Yorkers were encouraged by Mayor Bill de Blasio to avoid the busiest times of the subway and bus rush hour by telecommuting, staggering work schedules or walking or biking to work as cases of the coronavirus climb. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

‘Coronavirus 10 times deadlier than seasonal flu’

Commuters wear masks while walking through a subway station in New York, U.S., on Monday, March 9, 2020. In a series of tweets Sunday, New Yorkers were encouraged by Mayor Bill de Blasio to avoid the busiest times of the subway and bus rush hour by telecommuting, staggering work schedules or walking or biking to work as cases of the coronavirus climb. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

The novel coronavirus spreading across the globe is “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” the government’s top infectious disease official told a House hearing, where he warned the US must take serious mitigation efforts now.

US Vice President Mike Pence, right, speaks while Deborah Birx, coronavirus response coordinator, listens during a meeting with Coronavirus Task Force members and Diagnostic Lab CEOs at the White House in Washington, DC, US, on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.

“Bottom line: It’s going to get worse,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “If we don’t do very serious mitigation now, what’s going to happen is we’re going to be weeks behind” in containing the spread.

Fauci said the US must limit the influx of the virus from abroad and take steps to contain it domestically, including by restricting large gatherings such as sporting events.

He said a vaccine is still at least a year away. Responding to questions, Fauci said he couldn’t give a precise estimate of how many people in the US might get infected.

“It is going to be totally dependent on how we respond to it, so I can’t give you a number,” Fauci said. “If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could be way up and be involved in many, many millions. But if we sought to contain, we could mitigate it.”

The mortality rate for seasonal flu is 0.1 per cent, according to figures from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the coronavirus, the risk for the young and healthy appears relatively low. But older people, or those with underlying medical conditions, can face much higher risks.

The US now has more than 1,100 cases of confirmed infection by the virus, known as COVID-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, which also shows 29 deaths in the country. The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the outbreak a pandemic as cases outside China have risen 13-fold.

Disinfection workers in protective gear sterilises the area against the novel coronavirus, also known as Wuhan coronavirus, in Tong-in Market placed in the center of Seoul on February 07 in South Korea.

The coronavirus is starting to ripple across the economy. US stocks plunged after the WHO’s declaration with the S&P 500 tumbling more than 4.5 per cent, wiping out Tuesday’s rally.

Fauci’s warnings are a contrast to the message that has been delivered by President Donald Trump, who has compared the virus in tweets and statements to the seasonal flu.

On March 9, the president tweeted: “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

The Ruby Princess, a Grand-class cruise ship operated by Princess Cruises, drops anchor in the Santa Barbara Channel on February 15, 2019, in Santa Barbara, California.

He also told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he “personally” believed the mortality rate from the coronavirus was “way under one per cent.”

Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway and Larry Kudlow both have described the outbreak as “contained.”

Congress has already passed about $8 billion in emergency spending that includes provisions to help state and local governments prepare and to purchase tests, vaccines and therapies. Trump has yet to produce a plan he promised to deal with the economic impacts of the outbreak, and House Democrats are moving ahead with their own proposals.

“They’re accusing our president of failing us.”

– Representative Mark Green, a Republican from Tennessee

The outbreak has exacerbated political friction in Washington. At Wednesday’s hearing Republicans accused Democrats of politicising the government’s virus response by ignoring all the preparatory work the administration has done, including blocking some travel from China.

Virginia Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly rejected the criticism, saying the administration put American lives at risk and “you can’t cover that up.”

CDC Director Robert Redfield said the US had moved aggressively, but he was sharply questioned about delays in developing and distributing coronavirus tests after a manufacturing problem with the first batch of kits.

Democratic Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi asked whether the person who oversaw the process with the first set of test kits was still in charge of the manufacturing process.

A doctor uses a pipette during coronavirus patient sample detection tests in the virology research labs at UZ Leuven university hospital in Leuven, Belgium, on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020.

“This is currently under investigation at this point and I think I’m going to leave it there,” Redfield said, drawing a harsh response.

“You can’t give us assurance that the person who bungled the production process hasn’t been removed,” Krishnamoorthi said. “Recovering from that misstep cost us precious weeks and now months, sir. Meanwhile the virus spread and people died. I respectfully disagree with your earlier characterization that we had an aggressive response.”