Is COVID-19 spreading because we didn’t heed the lessons of previous viral outbreaks?

TORONTO — For two decades, scientists have been warning this could happen again.

Since the SARS outbreak, scientists have been wary of the advent of a new virus, spreading sickness, death and social chaos. Now that COVID-19 has arrived, they’re saying it’s a tragedy that might have been prevented.

“We don’t tend to learn the lessons from (outbreak) response,” said Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization (WHO). “Or at least, we don’t tend to implement the lessons that we’ve learned.”

As the world continues to respond to COVID-19 — the virus that has gripped public attention and worry since late December — the question of whether we should have seen this coming is one scientists are asking all over the globe.

World health authorities have long urged an end to live markets, which were the source of SARS and the H5N1 bird flu. Health officials believe they are a breeding ground for new disease, due to viruses jumping from animals to humans.

But the markets still remain popular across much of Asia and Africa.

“It’s the risky activity that’s the issue, and that’s what we need to think about as a way to reduce this,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance.

The outbreak of COVID-19 was tracked to a live market in the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province of China. According to WHO’s latest figures, almost 1,700 people have died in Hubei alone. Globally, over 73,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, with over 72,000 of them occurring somewhere in China.

New data put out Monday by the Chinese Center for Disease Control shows that more 80 per cent of the cases are mild, and the fatality rate is only around 2 per cent — which is lower than SARS, a similar virus. Health officials are expressing a tentative optimism about the disease potentially being on the decline.

But with the spread of the disease being so vast, it could still prove more deadly than previous viruses if it infects a much greater number of people.

Regarding outbreaks, transparency is still difficult. Scientists say China was slow to report the first cases, waiting over a month to let world health teams in to assist.

“So during that window of three or four weeks, there was five million people that left Wuhan for wider China and globally, and that was the kind of pivotal point for the widespread escalation,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.

A Chinese doctor who tried to blow the whistle on COVID-19 was silenced and punished by the government while they were still trying to downplay the dangers of the virus. Li Wenliang then contracted the disease himself — and soon died, spurring a public outcry.

“The lesson learned is act quickly, tell the community and the public what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing to find out what you don’t know,” Gostin said. “None of that has really happened in this coronavirus outbreak.”

When there isn’t reliable information on how an outbreak is unfolding, experts think it leads to unnecessary travel restrictions such as border closings and quarantines.

“If you have an inaccurate picture of an outbreak, the social disruption and panic can be worse than the disease itself,” said Dr. Neil Rau.

Gostin agreed, saying that if we “wait for the next shoe to drop — some novel virus or bacteria to actually hit us,” we will just “lurch from complacency to panic.”

The antidote? Putting more resources towards public health and lab testing.

“The better way is to invest in preparedness, invest in strong health and surveillance systems, invest in experienced public health responders, invest in research and development for anti-virals and vaccines, and do that all up front,” Gostin said.

It’s something that policy-makers and medical health professionals in Canada are trying to do.

But scientists warn that if the concerns of prevention and preparation are not stressed equally across the global community, the next viral outbreak could be even worse.

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