China’s coronavirus in an unknown form (novel) is the latest in a series of newfangled viral ailments that have struck the world in the last two decades, created panic, and then disappeared as mysteriously as they appeared.
Since the beginning of this year, that is for three weeks now, coronavirus has affected over 800 people in China killing at least 26. At least 13 provinces are reportedly affected, with key municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai not spared. Wuhan city has been shut off.
A few south-eastern Asian countries have also been affected, though to a lesser extent, by the coronavirus. This virus typically moves to humans from animals and is thought to have spread from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan.
Panicking at the speed and potency of the ailment, Chinese authorities have gone on an overdrive to somehow arrest the spread of this virus. There are worries that it will spread the maximum during the lunar new year holidays that just commenced. The season sees a massive number of people travelling all across the country.
No doubt the newest form of coronavirus will eventually be controlled given the enormous resources and healthy security systems that are now in place with the World Health Organisation at the helm if it turns into a global pandemic.
The coronavirus essentially affects the respiratory system and has no known cure, unlike common influenza that is caused by bacteria. Eventually, it is an individual’s immunity that can make a difference. Elderly people, children and those who are otherwise unwell could be at maximum risk.
The coronavirus is a throwback to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), another form of the same virus that scared the world in late 2002, again arising from China. It spread to nearly 40 countries, affecting over 8,000 people and killing over 750. Southeast Asia was among the worst affected. Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing were among the top hit.
At the height of the SARS pandemic, two cases were discovered at Dinnur near Bengaluru as well. Fortunately, it did not spread beyond that. The disease ran its course until 2004 after which it was not heard of.
According to Jim Yardley of the New York Times in May 2005, “Not a single case of the severe acute respiratory syndrome has been reported this year  or in late 2004. It is the first winter without a case since the initial outbreak in late 2002. In addition, the epidemic strain of SARS that caused at least 774 deaths worldwide by June 2003 has not been seen outside of a laboratory since then.”
The other pandemic that periodically shows a rise is the avian influenza or bird flu of which there are at least five sub-types, the most virulent being H5N1. Found to spread to humans from birds, particularly poultry, this too has thrown the world’s medical community into a tizzy. Millions of suspected poultry birds have been culled in areas where H5N1 has shown up. China was again reported to be the starting point of this strain of the virus.
The international medical community has since woken up to the prevalence of H5N1 and a battle of wits has raged since with a view to controlling the spread of the disease.
But the worst-hit have been those whose poultry had to be killed to control H5N1. For example, 50 million poultry birds were killed in Vietnam while South East Asia totally lost $10 billion in 2005 due to the culling of these birds. When one takes into account that 20 percent of the world’s proteins come from these poultry birds, the loss is mind boggling.
Just when it seemed that bird flu was coming under some sort of control arrived swine flu in 2009, this time Mexico being the culprit. A flu that was transmitted to humans from pigs, it has affected India too. According to official figures, in India there were 31,156 positive and 1,841 deaths in 2014-15, until March. In 2017, around 2,000 people died in India from H1N1. This disease too has largely been controlled, again by mass culling of pigs suspected to host the H1N1 swine flu virus.
While it is to the credit of organisations like the WHO for controlling the spread of these deadly viruses, doubts have also been raised whether vested interests in nodal medical bodies including the WHO have taken advantage of the panic to push through vaccines and drugs that have hugely enriched pharmaceutical companies.
The Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in 2010 called for greater transparency and safeguards against ‘undue influence by vested interests’ in the context of the H1N1 pandemic. It said, “the handling of the pandemic by the World Health Organization, EU health agencies, and national governments resulted in a waste of large sums of money and led to unjustified fears about health risks to the public.”
The assembly suggested that a ‘public fund to support independent research, trials and expert advice, possibly financed by an obligatory contribution from the pharmaceutical industry’ was needed to neutralise vested interests.
There are strict protocols that are put in place when a fresh outbreak occurs. But, the real challenge is to prevent the occurrence of new strains like the novel coronavirus or the earlier H1N1. That is unlikely, though, as several countries are still in a developing stage and hence continue to be vulnerable.
In other words, the latest form of coronavirus can be tackled, but that does not mean something else will not crop up.