“We have it totally under control.”
“It’s going to be just fine.”
Those were the words of US president Donald Trump when he recently weighed in on news of the potential spread of the new coronavirus, dubbed the 2019-novel coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, to the United States.
He’s wrong. It’s true, we’re not defenseless in the face of this disease. But we are unprepared.
Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province where the coronavirus has broken out, is a major transportation hub. The city is larger than New York in both population and size. I was in Wuhan recently chairing the US-China Health Summit. I can assure you that in the US we are, like those in Wuhan were, woefully unprepared.
I’ve led research teams assembled in the wake of two previous US public-health crises: the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the 2001 anthrax attacks. In both instances, lives were lost due to our inability to coordinate and execute a proactive response. It’s baffling to see that the US might fail, once again, to learn from the past.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a coronavirus epidemic of this kind. In 2003, SARS appeared. In 2012, we saw MERS break out. These epidemics have sickened and killed thousands, seemingly attacking every eight to 10 years.
The coronaviruses we’re facing today has been found to be both highly transmissible and highly lethal—a particularly dangerous combination. Over a course of eight months, SARS spread to about 8,100 people and killed nearly 800. It was highly contagious, but weakly lethal. MERS, on the other hand, infected about 2,500 and killed 858—not as sweeping, but far more deadly.
The 2019-nCoV is spreading fast—so fast that from Jan. 27 to Jan. 28 alone, the number of confirmed cases jumped by almost 60%. The disease has traveled beyond China to reach countries including Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States. So far, 2019-nCoV has claimed the lives of more than 100 people, a figure that is sure to increase with every passing day.
Economic risk of epidemics
The 2019-nCoV outbreak is not just a threat to public health, but to the global economy. It is fully within the power of a country like the United States to leverage scientific knowledge and resources into a solution that protects populations from further exposure. Going about business as usual will only serve to intensify the economic ramifications of the crisis, not mitigate them.
Ignorance, denial, and complacency are as much an enemy to human health today as 2019-nCoV itself. All three are endemic human traits. All three proved deadly with HIV/AIDS and the previous coronavirus outbreaks and likely may do so again. Being forewarned is being forearmed. We have been warned by nature time and time again. Now is the time to arm ourselves against this new threat.
Drugs and money
The first step is to focus on finding a drug or, more likely, a combination of drugs that will not just treat coronaviruses but protect those exposed from infection. As many companies don’t see a market for such therapeutic drug seems to have bred inertia in the pharmacology field, however. There’s also the challenge that the window of time when therapeutic drugs would work occurs before a patient even knows they’re sick. To drive action, we need to train our sights not only on treating those infected but also on prophylactic drugs. For example, the same cocktail of drugs used to treat HIV can prevent mother to child transmission and protect exposed adults.
When it comes to funding, it’s up to the government to lead the way. Like the Cooperative Drug Development Grants program the US government invested in for the treatment of cancer and HIV/AIDS, the government should create cooperative programs between academic laboratories and the biopharmaceutical industry to discover, develop, and bring to market new drugs to attack coronaviruses.
The US already has the tools to do this. Bioshield, the US program that protects people against bioterrorism, legislates a rapid response to “new and emerging biological threats,” whether natural or man-made. I can tell you from a life of experience that threats from nature are far more dangerous to humans than humans are to each other.
Today, we are at war not with a foreign country, nor with terrorist factions, but with nature itself. There is an old adage, “Fool me once: Shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Nature has warned us three times now: First with SARS, then with MERS, and now with 2019-nCoV. Fool me thrice, shame on all of us.