The number of people infected with the coronavirus seems to grow exponentially as researchers scramble to learn about the pathogen, which has killed hundreds.
Ending the outbreak is now a global endeavor, combining the efforts of scientists and public health officials in scores of nations.
The World Health Organization’s declaration of the outbreak as a global public health emergency has no specific foundation in international law, but Dr. Tom Frieden, a public health expert, said, “It makes clear that the World Health Organization and global infectious disease experts are taking this very seriously, and it gives the World Health Organization the ability to be more proactive with getting information from countries and sharing information globally.”
Frieden is no stranger to working to end epidemics. While he was director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Ebola virus exploded in West Africa. Frieden was a frequent visitor there and deployed specialists from the CDC to provide technical support to the region.
Frieden is no longer with the CDC. He is now president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, a global nonprofit public health initiative.
While some experts have criticized China’s handling of the outbreak, Frieden praises the country’s efforts.
“This is an unprecedented situation, and they have been very proactive,” he said, pointing out the outbreak started in late December, but by the end of the month, the Chinese government had declared an outbreak.
“They’ve done a remarkable job of getting the testing kits out all over the country so that we can see who is being tested and who’s positive. Cordoning off cities is remarkable. And building a thousand-bed hospital in 10 days is remarkable,” Frieden said, adding that it’s something the U.S. couldn’t even attempt to do.
Frieden also praised China’s scientific and health community: “China has remarkable genetic sequencing ability, really unparalleled in the world, and as there are thousands of viruses developed … we want to sequence them and see if there are changes. I have no doubt that the Chinese experts can do that wonderfully.”
In a VOA interview, Frieden said one of the things global collaboration can help with is in-depth investigation of the disease and analysis of the risk factors, particularly for severe cases and patient deaths.
“There is a lot that we still don’t know,” he said, “but from what we know today, this infection appears to be much less deadly than other coronaviruses, such as SARS [Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome], but also more readily spread than those infections were.”
Frieden acknowledged the disease is scary because it’s hard to get reliable information about it quickly, but he added that “nothing that we’ve seen so far suggests anything like the doomsday scenarios that people may fear.”
The good news for now is that many people appear to have contracted very mild infections, similar to the common cold, another coronavirus. At the same time, infections are proving more severe for the elderly and those with serious health conditions like diabetes.
The global effort, Frieden said, will help China protect itself and the world. One of the biggest concerns is that the virus could spread to regions with poor health infrastructure that lack laboratories for testing and adequate health care facilities and staff.
The best method of prevention is a vaccine, but one won’t be available for quite some time, perhaps a year. Frieden’s advice to protect yourself from getting the novel virus and other microbial diseases is to practice good hygiene and common sense: Wash your hands with soap and water frequently. If you feel ill, see a doctor and isolate yourself from others.
In addition, to prevent future disease outbreaks, Frieden said wild animals should be banned from food markets. Infected civet cats led to the outbreak of SARS.
Once this novel virus is contained, Frieden said, we have to improve preparedness for the next deadly pandemic. He noted that new viruses emerge every year. To reduce human suffering, and even economic hardship, governments around the world have to look at the coronavirus as a wakeup call to improve early warning systems, laboratory networks, trained health professionals and rapid response teams, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The bottom line: The emergence of new deadly viruses is a certainty. The question is whether the world will be prepared.