Possible new coronavirus raises questions on epidemic preparedness

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Researchers in Suwon, South Korea, examine materials collected from a Chinese woman, who had visited the Chinese city of Wuhan, to find the cause of her pneumonia-like symptoms on Jan. 9, 2020. Photo by: Latin America News Agency

MANILA — Chinese authorities have shared the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus found in patients suffering pneumonia-like symptoms in Wuhan province on Sunday, Jan. 12. The move allows for analysis of the virus by the wider scientific community, and helps countries in testing and tracing any potentially infected people.

The genetic sequence was shared with the World Health Organization and the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data.

New report warns of the consequences of inaction on preparedness

To date, 59 countries have developed national action plans for health security, but none of these plans have been fully financed, a new report says.

Chinese authorities have confirmed 41 cases to date, down from the initial 59 cases reported on Jan. 5. Seven of those affected are critically ill, and one person with an underlying health condition has died, according to WHO. All other patients are reportedly in stable condition, and six patients have been discharged from hospital.

A total of 763 close contacts have been identified and followed up as of Jan. 12, and no additional cases have been detected since Jan. 3, according to information provided by Chinese authorities, WHO said.

Chinese authorities have reported there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission linked to the new coronavirus found in patients suffering pneumonia-like symptoms in Wuhan province. But experts argue it’s too early to rule out the possibility.

“The mode of transmission has not yet been determined, and human to human transmission cannot be ruled out given that patients have respiratory symptoms. We await further results from the Chinese Government’s ongoing investigations,” WHO’s China office communicated to Devex. 

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause varying levels of disease, from common colds to severe diseases that can be fatal. The severe acute respiratory syndrome-associated coronavirus led to the deaths of 774 people during the 2003 outbreak. From 2012 until the end of Nov. 2019 meanwhile, there have been 858 associated deaths from the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus. 

Some coronaviruses can be easily transmitted between people, but not all. And several known coronaviruses circulating amongst animals have not yet infected humans, according to WHO.

But there’s still little information on the epidemiology of the outbreak  — the source is still unknown, as is its mode of transmission, and the extent of infection, although WHO said no health workers have been infected with the new virus.

What little information the world has of the virus isn’t new. The process of identifying the source can take time, WHO said. It took several years before experts were able to determine the source of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which reached 29 countries and infected over 8,000 people. Determining the mode of transmission is similarly challenging in this early stage.

“For close contacts, or people who have been in the same place at the same time, it can be difficult to determine if they are ill due to exposure to a source of infection, or because one person passed the illness to the other,” WHO said.

But the U.N. aid agency said China’s ability to preliminarily identify a novel virus in a short span of time is notable and shows the country’s increased capacity to manage new outbreaks.

“China has strong public health capacities and resources to respond and manage respiratory disease outbreaks. In addition to treating the patients in care and isolating new cases as they may be identified, public health officials remain focused on continued contact tracing, conducting environmental assessments at the seafood market, and investigations to identify the pathogen causing the outbreak,” according to WHO.

However, not all countries may have the capacity to respond and manage such an outbreak, if it leaks outside China.

In a report in Sept. 2019, experts that make up the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board — a high-level body set up by WHO and the World Bank in 2018 to monitor the world’s preparedness to outbreaks — argued that the world is largely unprepared for the next outbreak or pandemic. There has been a lot of talk on preparedness in recent years, but little action.

“After every single major outbreak, and you go back to SARS, H5N1, H1N1, Ebola in 2014-2016, you see the same thing in many of the humanitarian disasters. A lot of money goes into response and then it simply disappears right afterwards,” Alex Ross, director of the GPMB Secretariat, told Devex, reacting to the report.

The Global Health Security Index published last year also found no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics. Fewer than 7% of countries assessed in the index scored high in their ability to prevent the emergence or release of pathogens, and only 19% of countries scored high in detection and reporting. In addition, fewer than 5% of countries scored high in their ability to respond and mitigate the spread of an epidemic.

Update: This is a developing story. Further reporting was added on Jan. 13.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.