The new coronavirus discovered in China should not be the SARS of 2020
Members of the Chinese community in Manchester wearing a face mask - Photo: Press Association via REUTERS

The new coronavirus discovered in China should not be the SARS of 2020

24/01/2020
14:54
Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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Although the danger of an outbreak is reaching its decisive stage, scientists and public health officials have recognized the comprehensive response from the Beijing government

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The new coronavirus strain behind China pneumonia outbreak which probably has its origin in a seafood market in the central city of Wuhan, China, is fuelling global alarm after several cases were reported in the United States and other countries; however, the risk of a major health emergency similar to the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak is lower, due to the rapid reaction from the Asian country authorities.

Although the danger of an outbreak is reaching its decisive stage—today hundreds of millions of Chinese people began their week-long Lunar New Year or Spring Festival holidays, traveling around the nation and elsewhere to visit family and friends,—scientists and public health officials have recognized the comprehensive response from the Beijing government, besides noting that the world now has better technology to deal with the problem.

Jim LeDuc, a former virologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) who led an international team of researchers that identified the coronavirus which causes the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), declared to Wired that the biggest challenge 17 years ago was the “initial reluctance of China to explain what was going on. That allowed the outbreak to get a good head of steam before anyone realized how severe it was.”

The first known cases of the new strain of coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, as it has been labeled, emerged in Wuhan on December 12, with local health officials raising the alarm a few weeks later.

“It really reflects favorably on China’s commitment to public health, transparency, and making sure they are doing absolutely cutting edge science,” said LeDuc, who now serves as director of the Galveston National Laboratory, one of two maximum biocontainment facilities in the U.S.

He added that at the time of SARS China lacked resources such as a biosafety level four laboratory. In 2017, the first such laboratory was opened precisely in Wuhan, where the SARS outbreak began, and many of its scientists have trained with LeDuc in Texas.

“The Chinese health authorities should get credit for jumping into this,” remarked for his part Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, while Vineet Menachery, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston considered that the virus does not spread efficiently, since health workers treating patients do not seem to have fallen sick.

Viruses that emerge from animals need some time to become an epidemic strain. The faster you find them, the faster you limit the spread,” he added.

On Monday, China’s President Xi Jinping said all-out efforts must be made in the prevention and control of the contagion, given massive population flows during the Lunar New Year which some observers have called “humanity’s biggest migration.”

Considering the size of China’s population and the risks involved, it is not insignificant this proactive approach, summarized in a Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper article underscoring that “in the age of social media, unofficial information has been spreading on the Internet and competing with official information. Under such conditions, government agencies cannot hide information even if they want to.”

Media coverage

“Western media—it added—have been covering the case more timely than those in China. The capability to strengthen timely information of major events in their early stages needs to be built in China. Doing so would help increase the public’s confidence in the face of complexities.”

Based on this approach, authorities announced a quarantine in Wuhan, a city of 11 million inhabitants larger than New York in Hubei province whose Huanan Seafood Market also sold live poultry, rabbits, wolf pups, dogs, badgers, bamboo rats, and otters, as well as exotic animal meats including amphibians and snakes. According to the Chinese Journal of Virology, the local species of cobra and the highly venomous Taiwanese krait could be the original source of 2019-nCoV.

The market was closed and disinfected on January 1, after it was believed to be the starting point for the outbreak of the respiratory illness. Experts think that the infection probably came from people—in particular vendors and customers—touching or eating animals that carry the virus. These individuals then developed viral symptoms including fever, breathing issues, and lung lesions.

The SARS outbreak that killed 774 people and infected more than 8,000 in 26 countries—mainly in China—was eventually traced back to bats; masked palm civets, a species of wild cat that is hunted for meat in some regions of China, and camels, served as intermediates hosts between bats and humans. Once they were removed from markets, transmission stopped, ending the epidemic.

The public network CCTV reported that the complete travel ban in Wuhan began from 10:00 on Thursday; urban buses, subways, ferries, and long-distance passenger transport was temporarily suspended along with flights and trains departing from the provincial capital, one of the four major railway hubs in China. This measure was not adopted 18 years ago.

Also on Thursday, the central government locked down another city in Hubei province, Huanggang, to arrest the spread of the coronavirus; as of today, the quarantine was extended to 14 cities in the province, with a population of more than 48 million.

The World Health Organization determined that the outbreak is not yet an international emergency; “make no mistake, this is an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency,” highlighted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-general of the WHO.

Alluding to the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a rare declaration an expert committee at the agency had considered, Ghebreyesus explained the decision was made based on the limited number of cases that have spread outside of China to date, and Beijing’s efforts to control the outbreak.

“At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” he said.

So far, more than 830 people have been diagnosed with the so-called Wuhan pneumonia and at least 26 have died in China. The majority of the victims had been older than 60, and almost all of them had existing health conditions. Infections have also been reported in at least seven other countries—South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Nepal, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States.

Mexico has reported four suspected cases in the states of Jalisco and Michoacán, as well in Mexico City.

Editing by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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