As an infectious disease scientist, I have spent my career battling diseases ranging from smallpox to influenza to malaria to Ebola. The current coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, seems like déjà vu.
We’ve been here before — and we’ll be here again and again. We need to learn from our experiences and act quickly and urgently, not only in China but in the U.S. and globally. If we delay, the new coronavirus outbreak will spread beyond control. At the same time, we must plan how to strengthen our response to future outbreaks.
We must expect the unexpected — and prepare for it.
In a matter of weeks, around 7,700 cases from the new coronavirus and 170 deaths have been identified in mainland China. We can expect more. Estimates that 100,000 individuals may already be infected are not unreasonable, given the rapid increase in new cases and spread within China. This coronavirus is especially troubling, since it presents like influenza or bacterial pneumonia, requiring prompt and accurate diagnosis. Nevertheless, spread outside China, including in the U.S., seems less explosive and contained by diligent use of public health measures.
Although only five cases have been identified in the U.S., we will surely see more, given the ease with which this virus can spread through global travel — just as outbreaks of Zika, SARS and MERS have spread. There’s much we don’t know about the new coronavirus, but early evidence is ominous and suggests we must take strong measures to prevent it from becoming pandemic.
That includes providing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with immediate and appropriate funding and support to expand traveler screening at ports of entry, bolster state surveillance, increase the capacity of local laboratories to diagnose patients, and implement tried-and-true public health practices such as contact tracing and isolation.
Delays in providing such support, as we have seen with Ebola and Zika, can significantly reduce the impact of the outbreak response, both here at home as well as abroad.
We also need to support the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the research community in their efforts to develop diagnostic tests that give rapid results, drugs that prevent deaths and vaccines that block transmission. We will have to evaluate these new interventions with rigorous scientific methods such as randomized clinical trials.
Efforts by the scientific community have led to highly effective vaccines and treatments, as witnessed during past and current Ebola outbreaks, but they take time and resources. We must increase our investment in the resource infrastructure that will help us combat future disease outbreaks.
Even as we marshal our response to this current threat, we must prepare for the future. There will be more global disease outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics, and we need to be ready for them.
It is important to treat the current outbreak and all that follow as global health threats that require political will, scientific expertise and open exchange of information between jurisdictions and coordination among the world’s health, science and policy leaders. In the face of deadly infectious disease outbreaks, all nations are interdependent, and we must cooperate with each other. It is the only way we can get ahead of these diseases that defy borders.
We’ve been here before. Let’s make this the last time.
Joel G. Breman, M.D., is the president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He has served as an infectious disease outbreak expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and as a Senior Scientist Emeritus at the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health.