The medical and pharmaceutical world knows so little yet about the novel coronavirus as to render the chances of containing the epidemic slim. As hospitals in its central Hubei Province are overrun with residents displaying symptoms, China has taken extraordinarily stringent measures like shutting down 13 cities, including the epicentre Wuhan with 11 million residents and cancelling New Year celebrations over the weekend in Beijing too and closing the Great Wall to tourists.
Very few countries in the world can even contemplate such restrictions affecting close to 40 million people, virtually imprisoning them in indefinite lockdowns while also having begun construction of a 1,000-bed hospital expected to be completed in six days in Wuhan. The media has been given latitude to bring out the seriousness of the situation while those who have travelled to Wuhan recently told to isolate themselves at home regardless of whether they have any symptoms.
The World Health Organisation has not been seen to respond as quickly, with its members in deadlock over declaring it an emergency of international concern. The situation — at least 26 dead and 800 people infected as on Friday — may not seem as serious as it was in the 2002 SARS virus pandemic that killed 813 people out of 8,000 infected, reaching 30 countries. Even so, there are six times as many people travelling in and from China than a decade ago and the chances of a graver global emergency emerging are not to be ruled out yet, especially within China, where the New Year is the time of mass travel.
There has been no confirmation of an Indian being infected so far with the virus, but two persons are in an isolation ward in Mumbai. The country has set in motion regular airport screening and other measures that are expensive and resource heavy in terms of personnel. However, as the world knows only too well, prevention is better than cure and precautions are a must. Incidentally, it is said in this connection that washing of hands is more important than wearing the mask.
The helplessness against zoonotic viruses jumping species and then spreading from human to human was stressed in the global SARS pandemic of 2002 (from civet cats) and the MERS outbreak of 2012 (from camels, killing 858 people). The 2019-nCoV coronavirus, thought to be related to SARS, causes pneumonia like illness with cough and fever and those mildly ill may escape detection, perhaps making it harder to contain and nullifying efforts like airport checks. What precautionary measures can be taken in meat markets, especially where live mammals and birds are sold and food markets is something about which little thought has been lent.
Big pharma has often been accused of making a killing out of such outbreaks, feeding on the panic. Even so, the importance of finding quickly the antivirals as a counter cannot be overstressed. Preparing public health services to cope with these recurring epidemics may be challenging. Modern societies are, however, better equipped to do this and avert global catastrophes of the historic scale of the pandemic bubonic plague.