Monday, February 17, 2020


The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global public-health emergency at the end of January 2020, one month after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei Province.

The United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the lead, suspended entry into the United States of foreign nationals who were at risk of carrying the virus and evacuated U.S. nationals from Hubei Province and issued a “do not travel to China” advisory. China criticized the United States for taking these actions, claiming that it was contributing to public hysteria, while not offering any substantial assistance to combat the virus.

Currently, over 60,000 people in China reportedly are infected with this virus, with over 1,350 reported deaths. The numbers in China, and in other countries, are rising. A WHO team is visiting China to discuss the virus and review the available data. Fortunately, data is now being made available to a CDC anxious to send experts to China to assist with efforts to address this global emergency.

What China and the world are witnessing with the coronavirus appears similar to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic that affected China in 2003, although the current virus has killed and infected more people than SARS. One of the principal lessons learned from SARS was the importance of a rapid response, to detect and isolate patients, and to limit transmission and reduce opportunities for transmission within health care facilities. Early detection and open communication facilitated the immediate response measures necessary to control the SARS epidemic.

The question for China’s leadership is: Did the authorities in Wuhan report the virus in a timely and accurate manner? If they did, then why didn’t the leadership in Beijing respond more quickly and thoroughly, given the lessons learned from SARS? But if the authorities in Wuhan didn’t report this virus in a timely fashion, for fear of retribution, then China has a systemic governing problem that requires immediate attention.

The recent removal of the Party Secretary in Hubei, Jian Chaoliang, and the Party boss in Wuhan, Mei Guoqiang, could indicate that the local authorities didn’t inform the leadership in Beijing of the virus in a timely manner, thus preventing a more timely response. However, if their removal was a sop to the public, in an effort to absolve the leadership of any blame, then this issue could eventually develop into a problem for President Xi Jinping and his principal deputies. The truth eventually will be known, and the Chinese people will want answers.

As the world saw with SARS in 2003 and the Ebola Virus Disease in 2014 and now with the coronavirus, these epidemics could quickly develop into pandemics that affect all nations. Indeed, the role of the United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO) is to direct and coordinate work related to international health issues. Responding to health emergencies, like the current virus, is a core responsibility of the WHO. The WHO advance team that just went to China, after waiting two weeks for approval for the visit, is now positioned to cooperate with China to address this spreading virus.

The United States continues to be the preeminent nation that has the resources and expertise necessary to deal with health issues that could develop into pandemics.  Thus, it would be tragic if China did not welcome substantive U.S. support to address the coronavirus, which could quickly develop into a pandemic.

Ideally, China and the United States would seize this unfortunate development and enter into a dialogue on the value of working together to address this and other health emergencies that could develop into pandemics that affect all nations. This joint U.S.-China effort would complement the work of the WHO, with more of a focus on unknown pathogens that could  affect the global community. 

This, also, would be an opportunity for the United States and China to work to restore the trust and partnership of the 1980s and 1990s when the United States and China cooperated successfully on a number of strategically important issues.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea and the Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.

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