A previously unknown virus has caused an outbreak of respiratory infections thought to have originated in China's Wuhan region but that have quickly spread to other countries. So far roughly 800 people have been infected—including at least a dozen medical personnel—and around 25 have died. Eurasia Group expert Aditya Bhattacharji
explains the forces driving the world's latest health scare.
The current situation is relatively benign in economic, political, and social terms—person-to-person transmission of the virus has been limited—but respiratory infections are especially prone to becoming global events. The vast majority of cases have appeared in China, though a handful have occurred also in the US, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and Singapore. Authorities around the world have increased screening at ports of entry for travelers whose symptoms or travel history raise red flags. Furthermore, the timing of the emergence of the virus (temporarily) called 2019-nCoV is unfortunate, as it coincides with the lunar new year, during which several hundred million observers will travel within and outside of China and Southeast Asia. And the known symptoms of the respiratory infection mirror those of other winter ailments such as the common cold and the flu, potentially complicating efforts to diagnose and contain the spread of disease.
The China factor
Though Beijing learned several important lessons during the outbreak of SARS in 2003, a changing political climate threatens to undermine the ongoing response to the new virus. China's governance has become less transparent in the two decades since the outbreak of SARS, with investigatory journalism and other independent reporting and assessment facing greater constraints. Those in China who experienced SARS, as well as the government's alleged mishandling of the initial outbreak of 2019-nCoV, remain distrustful of official information. The arrest of individuals accused of spreading rumors about the illness in early January indicates that local officials are working to avoid widespread panic, but through means that may exacerbate the lack of trust. Moreover, the first instinct of officials is to try to cover up problems rather than admit them to Beijing, a problem that played an important role in the spread of SARS. China has had only belated success in dealing with African Swine Fever over the past year, with poor communication between different levels of government impeding a coordinated response.
Reasons for optimism
Beijing appears to be firmly committed to addressing the latest outbreak, based on the recently announced lockdown of transit in and out of Wuhan, public transit restrictions in several nearby cities, the release of a detailed response plan, elevation of the virus's risk category to accommodate forced quarantine, a willingness to share virus samples with international researchers, and the involvement of WHO officials on the ground and at headquarters in Switzerland. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both sent strongly worded statements to all sub-national officials to not hide any cases of the virus and instead act to coordinate the actions of different agencies and levels of government. Additionally, the effort to understand the virus is now being headed up by doctor Zhong Nanshan, who led the 2003 SARS response. Zhong is widely respected for his work in addressing the SARS outbreak and will serve as a trusted voice on the Wuhan virus, mitigating some of the trust issues between the general population and the government. As a failure to address the Wuhan virus could lead to significant economic disruptions and reflect poorly on Xi's efforts to improve both quality of life and quality of governance in China, the issue will receive significant personal attention and resources from the senior leadership.
Though the response of national authorities—especially in China—is the most important aspect of the response to the outbreak, international bodies such as the WHO also have a role to play. The WHO's Emergency Committee ruled this week that the virus does not constitute a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” a designation that would unlock additional support and resources from the WHO. Still, the fact that the meeting took place at all signals that the WHO is taking the matter seriously and helps to focus political attention on the importance of outbreak mitigation. An emergency recommendation remains possible, even in the coming days. The committee also recommended against international trade and travel restrictions—the general consensus in the public health community is that such measures do more harm than good—but it lavished praise on China for its energetic response to the crisis, which will encourage authorities there and in other countries to remain focused on dealing with the outbreak.