The death toll from China’s new virus has exceeded that of the SARS epidemic almost two decades ago, prompting public health authorities and Capitol Hill lawmakers to call for a more urgent global response to the rapidly spreading disease with mysterious roots.
The World Health Organization on Monday reported over 1,000 deaths in mainland China, surpassing the 774 people who died in 2002 and 2003 from severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which is in the same family of viruses as the novel coronavirus.
Outside of China, 27 countries and territories have confirmed more than 330 cases of the coronavirus, including suspected cases of “onward transmission” in people who have not stepped foot in China.
But the U.S. and other countries are not doing everything in their power to contain the coronavirus, which burst into view in Wuhan, China, on the cusp of the Lunar New Year, said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.
“We need a surge in resources and public health interventions. There is little sign this is happening and certainly not on the scale we saw with Ebola,” said Mr. Gostin, referring to the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa that killed 11,000 before a global campaign defused the threat. “Ebola, like coronavirus, was spinning out of control.”
Under President Obama, he said, the U.S. contributed over $1 billion in emergency funds, sent troops into Liberia to provide support and led the United Nations effort to address the outbreak.
“That was the pivotal moment when the epidemic started to come under control,” he said. “We have not seen such decisive action for coronavirus. And there has been no pivotal moment to decisively shift the course of the epidemic.”
Democrats are making similar calls from Capitol Hill. They blasted President Trump for proposing cuts to certain health programs in his fiscal 2021 budget and said he should demand emergency funding to deal with the spiraling crisis.
“Epidemics like the coronavirus require a whole-of-government response. Congress must take the lead — we must pass an emergency funding bill that will force the administration to adequately respond,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat.
The White House and global authorities say they are taking the threat seriously and working to eradicate the virus.
The U.S., which has confirmed 12 cases and on Saturday reported the first death of an American in China, pledged to donate $100 million to the cause and sent nearly 18 tons of medical supplies to the Chinese. It has also evacuated about 800 Americans from China and placed them under a 14-day quarantine.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, set up a task force and placed travel restrictions on people who have been to China. He has predicted that Chinese President Xi Jinping will be successful in handling the disease and that springtime weather will knock out the disease.
“By April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus,” Mr. Trump told governors at the White House on Monday.
Others are eyeing China’s efforts warily. Although the country first appeared to be transparent with the coronavirus, local authorities in January repudiated Li Wenliang, a doctor credited for raising alarm about a “SARS-like virus” in Wuhan that he spotted in December. He died from the coronavirus Friday, sparking an unusual degree of outrage among Chinese against their communist government.
“During SARS, China was a recalcitrant state actor, sitting on the outbreak for many weeks before reporting it. While we thought China was more cooperative this time, and in some ways they are, we now know there was also a delay of several weeks before reporting to WHO,” said Mr. Gostin. “They even punished whistleblowers in Wuhan who tried to alert the world.”
The WHO says countries need to set aside politics and focus on the virus, their “common enemy.”
“China is facing an unprecedented crisis and is responding in an unprecedented manner. We need to acknowledge that the relatively low number of cases of the virus detected outside of China is a result of the intensive efforts the Chinese government is taking to contain the emergency and protect other countries,” said WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic.
He said China’s ability to diagnose, treat and manage infectious diseases and health emergencies has “advanced considerably over the past 20 years” and evolved since the SARS outbreak.
Because of the coronavirus’ rapid spread, the WHO declared a global health emergency last month and urged countries to donate $675 million to contain the fast-growing outbreak.
The virus has been linked to a large animal and seafood market in the central city of Wuhan. Reports trace the virus to bats, but health officials say they are still trying to determine the origin of the illness.
“It is difficult to predict the outcome of this outbreak at this time without a full understanding of factors such as transmissibility of the virus and the actual number of people who are infected, including those with mild or minimal symptoms that may not present to medical care,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said given the history of other coronaviruses, such as SARS, it makes sense that another animal would be the immediate host of the virus that has spread to humans.
The SARS epidemic began in southern China in November 2002, and officials declared it a global health threat in March 2003. SARS was traced back to civet cats, which caught the infection from bats and then passed the virus to humans.
SARS spread to 29 countries and infected 8,098, according to WHO, and had a mortality rate of about 10%. So far, about 2% of coronavirus cases are fatal.
Still the coronavirus has managed to kill more people. It is spreading more efficiently in part because people are not confined to hospital beds by their symptoms, said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
“The severity of SARS led to a great deal of its transmission being in health care facilities where sick patients were admitted,” he said.
Dr. Schaffner said the coronavirus is much more transmissible than SARS and may spread when a person isn’t sick or showing symptoms.
“If a substantial number of people are found to have very mild infections or even no symptoms, then obviously the calculated fatality rate will diminish further. But even if it stays at about 2%, plus or minus, that’s still a very high fatality rate — higher than influenza, for example,” Dr. Schaffner said.
WHO on Monday said a team of specialists from around the world arrived in China to assess the situation and plot the next steps.
Mr. Gostin said he would like China to disclose whether outside specialists will have “full and unfettered access” to all public health information on the ground.
The WHO says its team will be “fully empowered” to fight the virus as it sees fits.
“If we work along the lines of collaboration and China gets even more open and transparent … then the prospects improve,” Dr. Schaffner said. “Things will get better both for China and the rest of the world’s population would be relatively protected.”
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