What researchers are calling the Wuhan coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has thus far infected more than 17,489 people in numerous countries and is responsible for some 362 deaths as of February 3. A genetic study of the virus prompted experts to believe it jumped from bats to people. There were no bats sold at the seafood and wild animal market where the first victims were infected, so researchers believe there was another animal that acted as a carrier between bats and people.
If this is true, it’s certainly not the first time a virus had jumped from a wild animal to humans; that has happened at least 10 times since 1976. Some of the outbreaks are fairly well-known. In 1976, the Ebola virus infected more than 33,000 people mostly in Africa with a death rate of more than 40 percent. In 2002, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus infected more than 8,000 people mostly in Asia and had a death rate of more than nine percent. In 2014, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) infected more than 4,400 people mostly on the Arabian Peninsula and had a death rate of about 34 percent. The death rate for the Wuhan coronavirus, thus far, appears to be under three percent, but that could change significantly.
Those four viruses and at least six others have jumped from animals to humans in the past 45 years and scientists believe that will continue to happen.
According to a website called Science Alert, “More than 75 percent of emerging diseases originate in animals; these are called zoonotic diseases, meaning they can jump from animals to people. At least 10 outbreaks in the last century have spilled over to humans from animals like bats, birds and pigs.
“According to experts, diseases will continue to spill over from animals to humans as the global population grows. The more people there are on Earth, the more our species moves into wild habitats and encounters creatures that harbor viruses.”
So globalization puts humans in contact with wild animals, and it also put humans more in touch with each other.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million, and 20 other cities have been locked down for days, but Wuhan is a central travel hub for Chinese residents; more than five million people left the city before the quarantine was imposed, many of them traveling during the Lunar New Year Festival, China’s busiest travel season.
Further, many more Chinese people are traveling now than in 2002 when the SARS outbreak hit. According to figures from the Chinese government in 2002, there were 16.6 million outbound trips from the country compared to 149.7 million in 2018.
It’s not surprising that Wuhan coronavirus spread to multiple countries with 11 cases confirmed here in the U.S. The State Department is urging people not to travel to China and airlines from many countries have banned flights to China.
A committee of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak in Wuhan a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 31. During the SARS outbreak, which incidentally also originated in bats but was introduced to humans through a civet, the Chinese government didn’t inform the WHO of the disease until nearly three months after it began, for which the Chinese government was criticized by the international community.
This time around, WHO is praising the reaction of the Chinese government. “The very strong measures the country has taken include daily contact with WHO and comprehensive multi-sectoral approaches to prevent further spread. It has also taken public health measures in other cities and provinces, is conducting studies on the severity and transmissibility of the virus, and sharing data and biological material. The country has also agreed to work with other countries that need their support. The measures China has taken are good not only for that country but also for the rest of the world,” WHO wrote in a statement.
One thing that’s different between 2003 and now is the presence of social media and the rise of fake news. Lots of misinformation about the outbreak is spreading online: reports of people in China dropping dead, children being abandoned in airports and the disease originating at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to name a few. These false statements are being addressed by Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. Facebook specifically said it “will remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them,” but certainly some will slip through.
As long as the human population keeps expanding, we will likely have more zoonotic disease outbreaks, health professionals to counter them and social media pranksters to spread misinformation about them.