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An outbreak of a new respiratory virus that originated in China has infected more than 7,700 people and caused at least 170 deaths in the past several weeks. On Thursday, the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency in response to the virus.
The virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December. The majority of known cases and all the deaths have occurred in China. But a small number of people have been diagnosed around the globe, including in the U.S., Canada, Japan.
The virus is a new member of the coronavirus family, the same category of virus behind the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreaks. It causes pneumonia and, in the most severe cases, can result in organ failure. The current outbreak shares many similarities with SARS, which infected more than 8,000 people and caused 774 deaths between 2002 and 2003. Like SARS, the coronavirus is believed to have originated in bats and transmitted to humans in so-called wet markets, open-air marketplaces popular in China where live animals are sold. At the moment, the coronavirus does not appear to be as deadly as SARS, which killed about 10 percent of the people who contracted it.
In response to the outbreak, China has restricted travel in and out of Wuhan and some neighboring cities. The country has also temporarily banned the trade of wild animals. Hong Kong has severely limited travel from mainland China. Several countries have begun performing health screenings at airports for people traveling from areas affected by the virus.
Why there’s debate
China has received praise from experts for avoiding some of the mistakes it made during the SARS epidemic. The country’s aggressive response to the early signs of the outbreak and its willingness to share the news with the rest of the world are in stark contrast to SARS, which the government tried to keep secret for months. China’s openness has allowed scientists from around the world to work together to try to develop a vaccine.
Some experts, however, say the response in China and abroad has not been strong enough. There are some suspicions that Beijing is underplaying the actual numbers of infections. Many have called for wet markets to be abolished and for the trade of exotic animals to be permanently banned in China. Some experts have argued that not enough investment has been made in global health infrastructure to prepare for an outbreak of this size.
At the same time, others caution that overreacting to the outbreak could cause more harm than the virus itself. The novelty of a new, highly publicized virus could create unnecessary fear and divert attention away from preventing more dangerous everyday health risks like the flu, which can kill as many as 650,000 people a year. Reactionary media coverage, some argue, can damage economies and cause people to separate themselves from their communities.
The White House has reportedly considered suspending flights into the U.S. from mainland China, but has opted not to do so for now. Some airlines, including American Airlines and British Airways, have canceled flights to and from the country.
Officials are hopeful that a fast-tracked vaccine could be ready for trials in three months.
China’s open response to the outbreak should be a model
“China’s response stands in stark contrast to the Sars outbreak in 2002-2003, and has won it international plaudits. In 2002, China tried to cover up the spread of Sars: newspapers were forbidden from reporting it, public health officials told citizens there was nothing to worry about, and little was done to stop the deadly virus spreading across China. This time the authorities have been more open.” — Editorial, Guardian
Wet markets and the exotic animal trade should be permanently banned
“If these markets, and human consumption of wildlife, persist, the public will continue to face heightened risks of viral disease.” — Christian Walzer and Aili Kang, Wall Street Journal
The public should be wary of misinformation
"When there's a lack of information and there's fear, rumours come in to fill that gap. The reason people are sharing this is because they're trying to make sense of what is a really complicated situation and also something that is potentially worrying. The danger is that it spins out of control, because fear then takes over." — Media expert Alfred Hermida to CBC
Ultimately, success or failure in preventing a global outbreak comes down to luck
“Outbreaks of new viral diseases are like the steel balls in a pinball machine: You can slap your flippers at them, rock the machine on its legs and bonk the balls to the jittery rings, but where they end up dropping depends on 11 levels of chance as well as on anything you do.” — David Quammen, New York Times
Worldwide health infrastructure needs to be improved
“Despite these signs of progress, there are many reasons to worry about global readiness for pandemics. Global assessments continue to show that many countries lack basic public health capacities, like laboratories and trained epidemiological personnel.” — Jennifer Nuzzo, Boston Globe
Leaders should ignore politics and do what’s best for public health
“Public health emergencies should be handled quickly, transparently and devoid of political considerations.” — Keith B. Richburg, South China Morning Post
Trust in science needs to be prioritized in times between outbreaks
“We are living in a time when politicians call into question the credibility of their own government’s experts. … Science itself is distrusted, discredited and demonized. … Restoring that trust is a societal imperative. Indeed, our lives — and the lives of future generations — depend on it.”— Leana S. Wen, Washington Post
Fear of an outbreak can push communities apart
“Fear directed in this way can exaggerate divisions within communities, magnify the social and economic impact of an epidemic, and create lasting fissures, while also complicating and distracting from the epidemic-control measures that are needed to tackle the problem.” — David McKeown, Globe and Mail
Governments can create incentives for drugmakers to prioritize disease prevention
“Whether it’s cash prizes that actually matter to companies that generate billions in revenue, or significant tax breaks, or extra market exclusivity for bestselling medicines, whatever it takes to get companies to re-engage is worth trying out.” — Max Nisen, Bloomberg
Overreacting to the outbreak harms public trust in leaders
“I worry that public health officials and activists are hurting their credibility with the general public by freaking out about every relatively new disease that crosses international lines. … There's got to be a better way of warning and informing people than going on TV and suggesting that every new scary-sounding disease is going to bring about the apocalypse.” — Vox reporter German Lopez
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP