At least 50 million Chinese citizens have been placed under strict quarantine in multiple cities. 11 million are locked down in Wuhan alone – the epicenter of the mysterious Wuhan Coronavirus. Hundreds of new cases are being confirmed worldwide with each passing day, from Singapore to Canada. And in the coming week, it is estimated that 79 million Chinese nationals will travel by plane for the Lunar New Year holidays. Millions more will travel via other modes of transportation in what is the largest annual human migration on earth, exponentially increasing the risk of the epidemic spreading internationally.
If the SARS epidemic of nearly 2 decades ago taught us anything, it is that only a joint effort from the top medical institutions around the world can stem such a deadly spread – yet, up to this point, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not labelled the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
The world responds to the Wuhan Coronavirus
The Wuhan Coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province in late 2019. The virus, which causes fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, hospitalization, and even death has no proven cure or vaccine. The suspected origin of the virus is a local seafood market that conducted illegal transactions of wild animals.
Initially, local authorities in Wuhan hesitated to publicize the anomalous number of pneumonia-like cases being reported in Wuhan. Multiple international organizations have accused the Chinese government of underreporting the number of deaths and infections. Earlier this week, official Chinese records put the number of confirmed cases at around 2,700. However, researchers at the Imperial College London estimate that the number of infected cases in Hubei is actually around 100,000; experts in Hong Kong estimate that the infection rate may be up to 30 times higher than what Chinese authorities are reporting.
With a growing number of confirmed cases around the world, the Chinese government has taken aggressive steps to contain the epidemic. At least 50 million of the Chinese population are now under quarantine; most employers in affected areas are asking their employees to work from home. The Chinese Ministry of Finance and National Health Commission has designated $1.44 billion in funds for public health services and epidemic prevention and control, some of which will be used to construct two emergency hospitals in Wuhan that will be able to handle over 2,000 patients. Specialist military medical teams are being flown into Hubei province, where Wuhan is located. International aid is also pouring into China: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has allocated $10 million to combat the spread of the coronavirus in China and Africa and UNICEF shipped six metric tons of medical supplies to China this week.
While the United States has stopped short of declaring a public health emergency, it has extended screening for the virus to 20 airports. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has offered assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to Chinese authorities, with HHS Secretary Alex Azar describing the situation as “fast-moving” and “constantly changing”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also tweeted his support of China in containing the coronavirus outbreak.
In addition to monitoring the situation, the U.S. government must also consider backing up its words by funding programs dedicated to fighting global epidemics. For 10 years, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Predict program collected over 140,000 biological samples from animals and found over 1,000 new viruses, including a new strain of Ebola and bat-borne viruses in Thailand. However, Predict’s funding cycle ended at the end of 2019, and its future is in limbo. The continuation of this program is critical to identifying animal viruses with a potential for developing into future epidemics.
Lessons from the SARS epidemic
The new coronavirus has many hearkening back to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that left 8,000 infected and 800 dead worldwide. After the WHO issued a global SARS alert, it worked with the Chinese government, alongside the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), to coordinate international teams from over 20 organizations and 15 nationalities on surveilling, investigating, and controlling the infection. The WHO also worked with international labs and logistics bases to not only test SARS samples and identify the causative agent, but also coordinate the supply of clinical management equipment.
According to former CDC Director Jeffrey P. Koplan, the singular most important outcome of the SARS battle was the creation of new national public health agencies (NPHIs). With the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Association of National Public Health Institutes has coordinated 80 of these NPHIs into a global network which has played an essential role in coordinating responses to other public health crises, such as the global Ebola and Nipah outbreaks.
Global collaboration needed to fight epidemics, now and in the future
If the world learned anything from the SARS epidemic, it is that in order to counter a viral disease, a coordination of the world’s finest medical institutions and brightest minds is quintessential. As the number of confirmed cases climbs with each passing day, the WHO must act swiftly and declare the Wuhan Coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern. Doing this will persuade countries around the world to take further preventative actions and increase surveillance against the disease.
The U.S., the WHO, and other major international players must act fast. The prevention of epidemics now will save countless lives in the future.
This story is developing. To view the most up-to-date numbers for globally confirmed cases, please visit Johns Hopkins University’s tracker.