As the new virus that emerged in China spreads rapidly around the world, the reaction of national and international health agencies will be key to stopping it
29 January 2020
A DEADLY new virus is spreading rapidly around the world. In a matter of weeks, we have seen almost 3000 people infected across at least 12 countries, and more than 80 deaths. But epidemiologists are warning that it has the potential to spread further and claim more lives.
We know the airborne virus can spread between people, and Chinese researchers studying it have warned that it seems to be able to spread before symptoms show. That might explain why it is spreading so much faster than SARS did back in 2003 (see “New coronavirus may be much more contagious than initially thought”).
As New Scientist went to press, reports of the first possible cases of person-to-person transmission outside China were beginning to emerge. If SARS, MERS, Ebola or swine flu have taught us anything, it is that we need to be prepared. The reaction of national and international health agencies is key. The controversial decision by the World Health Organization to hold off on declaring a public health emergency of international concern is one it may come to regret – the agency is still facing criticism for its delayed response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
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“Chinese researchers sequenced the new virus in days and swiftly shared their results internationally”
In the meantime, China is due some credit. The country has swiftly responded to the outbreak. Local health agencies reported the first suspicious cases back when there were only a handful of them, and the world has been updated on a daily basis since.
The food market at the centre of the outbreak was shut and disinfected as soon as it was identified as a possible source. Chinese researchers not only sequenced the genome of the new virus in a matter of days, they also immediately shared their results with the international community. As a result, diagnostic kits exist in multiple countries.
China’s lockdown of several cities is unprecedented, and certainly isn’t foolproof: it is impossible to fully stop the movement of people. But it is a big step in stemming the virus’s spread.
Other countries, including the UK, have insisted they are prepared to deal with any outbreak. Let’s hope we won’t find out if that is true.
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