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No More Pandemics?

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Remember SARS? Back in 2003, this deadly coronavirus had jumped the species barrier (probably from bats) into human beings and was spreading across the world. People could pass along the virus via coughs and sneezes. Some 8,000 cases and 774 deaths occurred before public health measures quelled its spread.

SARS evidently broke out in November 2002 and began to spread through China’s coastal province of Guangdong. By January 2003, a team of Chinese health experts had identified the cause of these new cases of pneumonia as a virus, but that information was kept as a state secret from the public and international health authorities. Effective public health measures were not implemented until April. The epidemic ultimately affected 26 countries, including 8 known cases in the United States.

At the time, I marveled that once samples had been sent to a lab in Canada it took researchers only 6 days to sequence the virus completely. Not only that, but researchers in Hong Kong devised a diagnostic test for the virus in less than two weeks.

What was a breakneck pace of discovery in 2003 now seems quaint in 2020.

Chinese health officials announced on January 2 (just two weeks ago!) that they had identified several cases of pneumonia in December caused by infections from a new SARS-like coronavirus. By January 10, Chinese researchers had posted the fully sequenced genome of the new virus at virological.org, a hub for prepublication data designed to assist with public health activities and research. On January 16, German researchers announced that they had developed and were releasing a diagnostic test to detect infections of the new virus.

So far, 41 people in the Chinese city of Wuhan have been infected; two of them have died. In addition, three cases among travelers to Wuhan have been identified in Japan and Thailand. But the swift implementation of effective public health measures in Wuhan may already have corralled this outbreak.

During the bird flu panic of 2005, I predicted that “as humanity’s biotechnical prowess increases, we may never suffer through another pandemic again.” The rapid response to this outbreak provides some heartening evidence for that claim.

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