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COVID-19 and the Past and Future of Pandemics

The novel coronavirus will cause diverse systemic changes across the globe, but it isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last pandemic to threaten life as we know it
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As of June 2020, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases hit 6 million and killed 400,000 worldwide as reported by World Health Organization. COVID-19, or corona (CO) virus (VI) disease (D) of 2019 (19), was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China and has since spread across the globe.

China managed to slow the spread of COVID-19 relatively quickly compared with other countries, in part due to its immediate quarantine of 60 million people in the city of Wuhan and Hubei province. The support of the public, who still grapple with recent memories of the SARS-CoV pandemic, also played a crucial role throughout this process.

For other countries circumstances have become much more critical. The number of COVID-19 deaths in the US surpassed 100,000 and the highest death rates in Europe were recorded in the UK, Italy, and France, respectively at 38,000, 33,000 and 28,000. In Turkey, the death toll has not yet reached such heights despite its large number of cases.

While scientists explore the origins of the novel coronavirus, world leaders and influential media outlets have voiced controversial theories about the virus’s emergence. For example, US President Donald Trump claimed to have seen evidence that the virus originated in a Chinese lab, a claim also supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Chinese authorities fiercely reject these accusations and emphasize the lack of evidence for such claims. Going further, some of China’s pro-government media outlets have argued that COVID-19 might have actually first appeared in the US, France, Italy, or Spain and went undiagnosed.

Rebuking accusations that the virus originated in China at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV),  Director of the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory Zhiming Yuan stated that the “WIV has the same strict management rules as those in Europe and the US […] It has always been in close cooperation with the international community and academia, so it is open and transparent.” The WIV is the first Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory in China, meaning that it has the capacity and facilities required to study the world’s most dangerous pathogens.

So far, the scientific community seems to be pointing to an organic origin of the virus. In February, 27 scientists working on the topic published a joint declaration condemning the spread of unfounded conspiracy theories. Moreover, in March, an article analyzing the genome sequence of the novel coronavirus was published, debunking arguments that it was man-made while noting that it is also the world’s 7th coronavirus known to infect people.

In addition to today’s COVID-19, coronaviruses have also been the cause of two earlier pandemics over the past two decades, namely SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

21st Century Pandemics

Since 2020 began, COVID-19 has dominated the global agenda, but it isn’t the first pandemic to capture the world’s attention and demand its response.

Three years ago Zika virus garnered similar attention, spreading to 86 countries, primarily throughout the Americas. This outbreak disproportionately affected unborn babies carried by pregnant women, causing abnormally small head sizes among newborns.

In 2014, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa killed 11,300 people over two years, exhibiting an extremely high fatality rate of 50 to 90%. Before this, MERS-CoV emerged in Saudi Arabia, and was believed to be transmitted to humans by camels. Spreading to 27 countries, the virus killed 858 people with a fatality rate around 35.5%.

In 2009 in the US, an influenza virus commonly circulated among pigs was transmitted to humans, resulting in the H1N1 “Swine Flu” pandemic. H1N1 killed 150,000 people and was particularly dangerous for the young and the pregnant. Earlier still, in the beginning of the 2000s, another coronavirus, SARS-CoV, first appeared in China and was believed to be transmitted to humans by bats or civets. It spread to 26 countries and killed 774 people with a fatality rate of 10%.

21st century health and communication technologies have facilitated the relatively rapid containment of these viruses, keeping the death toll lower when compared to the past.

History’s Deadliest Pandemics

The so-called Spanish Influenza, which spread across the globe during Word War I, is known as one of the deadliest pandemics in history, killing around 50 million people. It is estimated that this flu infected one-third of the world’s population and killed more people than the synchronous war.

The bubonic plague or “black death” ravaged much of Europe and Asia throughout the mid-1300s, eradicating an estimated 30-50% of the European population in just a few years, hence, it took around 200 years for it to get back its previous records. Likewise, the Justinian Plague, appearing in the 6th century, killed an estimated half of the European population and wasn’t contained for nearly 200 years. It is claimed that at its peak the disease claimed the lives of five to 10,000 people each day in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

The Future of Pandemics

The viruses or bacteria behind all modern-day pandemics were transmitted to humans by animals, and as contact between humans and animals remains unavoidable so too does another pandemic. In this respect, the mitigation of risks associated with disease contraction and the implementation of robust precautionary response mechanisms are equally important.

With regards to disease prevention, pulmonologist Zhong Nanshan, who first discovered SARS-CoV, states that “many things need to be done including ending the wildlife trade, improving cooperation in hygiene-tech and operational capacity of disease control centers, and creating a better global system to be ready for potential epidemics.”

In 2015, philanthropist Bill Gates noted that the world was not ready for a pandemic and should therefore immediately implement measures in preparation for the next global outbreak. His suggestions included the strengthening of health systems, increased civil-military cooperation in the field of disease control, the fostering of pandemic simulations, and greater investment in relevant research and development.

Although the public health implications of recent pandemics have been reduced by advances in science and technology, COVID-19 has demonstrated how insufficient global preparations have been and how vulnerable we all still are. If history is any indication of the future, we should remain vigilant in remembering that the next pandemic will always be just around the corner.