Is the World Ready for the Coronavirus?
Distrust in science and institutions could be a major problem if the outbreak worsens.
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The coronavirus outbreak, which began in early December in the Chinese city of Wuhan, had as of Wednesday sickened more than 6,000 people across at least 15 countries and claimed more than 130 lives, all of them in China. Experts don’t yet know how contagious, or how deadly, this new virus is. But the growing crisis has inspired panic. Cities around the world are bracing for a potential wave of infections. Stock and oil prices are tumbling. And experts in just about every global industry are fretting over the many supply chains that could be disrupted — from prescription drugs and surgical masks to rare earth metals — if the outbreak grows into an even wider epidemic.
Given the scope of these anxieties, it’s a wonder more hasn’t been done to prepare for an outbreak like this one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have long warned that the rate at which new pathogens emerge is increasing (partly as a result of global warming). The agency identifies new ones every year, and disease outbreaks — especially those involving viruses that leap from animals to humans, as the coronavirus did — are hardly surprising.
China, the center of the current outbreak, appears to have learned at least some lessons from the last such crisis it confronted. In 2002, when SARS first emerged, the country’s leaders waited roughly three months before notifying the World Health Organization. By then, the virus was on its way to reaching more than a dozen countries. (SARS is also caused by a coronavirus, variants of which are fairly common around the world but rarely affect humans. When they do, they generally cause upper-respiratory infections.)
Chinese officials appear to have moved much faster this time around. They alerted the W.H.O. within a month of detecting the first coronavirus cases and moved quickly to sequence the new virus and to contain it: Some 56 million people, including the entire city of Wuhan, have been placed under quarantine.
But global health experts say that over all, the country’s response still leaves much to be desired. Officials appear to have withheld crucial information — including that the virus was spreading between humans and that cases were not confined to the elderly or to people who visited the market believed to be at the outbreak’s epicenter — for weeks. They have also rebuffed initial offers of help from the C.D.C. and failed to share samples of the virus with the scientific community.
Global health experts are already cautioning other countries to prepare for China’s containment efforts to fail. Part of the problem is that a quarantine of this size is inherently difficult to maintain. Another major issue is a lack of public trust: Control measures work only if people abide by them. And people are much less likely to follow orders when they don’t trust that the authorities issuing them have their best interests at heart. In Wuhan and elsewhere in China, trust in officials is running low, as some citizens suspect that the government is more concerned with containing bad press than with defeating the virus.
In fact, trust may prove at least as important as technology and financial resources in keeping the coronavirus outbreak at bay — as global health workers learned during recent Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
American officials ought to keep that hard-learned lesson in mind. President Trump said after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the United States that the outbreak is “totally under control.” (Since then, such cases have been confirmed in at least five people in four states.) One would like to believe the president’s pronouncements. But Mr. Trump has a history of obscuring facts — especially scientific ones — to score political points. Scientists and the public are right to worry about the potential consequences of such duplicity. What happens if people stop trusting the institutions meant to protect them from natural disasters, faulty medical products or disease outbreaks? If the coronavirus proves especially contagious or deadly, that question will no longer be hypothetical.
Nor will the consequences of an “America First” worldview that treats global health security as unnecessary. In only three years, the Trump administration has eliminated the office of pandemic response, created after the Ebola epidemic of 2014; drastically scaled back the C.D.C.’s overseas outbreak prevention efforts, from 49 countries to just 10; and discontinued a surveillance program meant to detect new viral threats, like the coronavirus, before they make the leap into humans.
To its credit, the administration has managed to keep some of the world’s leading infectious disease experts in key roles at top agencies, including the C.D.C., the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. If those professionals are given the resources and authority to respond to the crisis as their experience and the science dictate — if they are empowered to develop vaccines, deploy experts and collaborate with response teams in affected regions — the worst-case scenarios may yet be averted.
One hopes that will be the case. If so, the United States and the rest of the world will do well to learn from this experience. It will almost certainly not be the last time the world faces such a crisis.