“Desperate times require desperate measures.” Hippocrates
Nearly 60 years ago, the late Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar defined a virus as “a piece of bad news wrapped in protein.” News of the outbreak of a mysterious viral disease, the coronavirus 2019-n-CoV, in Wuhan, China, has sent shockwaves of fear cascading around the world. The virus is most certainly bad news.
By mid-January, the Chinese government acknowledged the seriousness of the outbreak. Millions of people had passed through Wuhan, spreading 2019-n-CoV around the world. As of Feb. 6, n-CoV has caused 564 deaths and 28,060 worldwide infections with 12 confirmed cases in the U.S. Those numbers already exceed the total number of cases of the 2002-03 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Isolated cases of this new coronavirus have been identified in 24 countries.
Rest assured, the bad news caused by 2019-n-CoV will grow exponentially worse in the coming weeks.
No Simple Solutions
There is nothing surprising in this. Epidemiologists have long warned of the threat of emerging infectious diseases and pathogens. What makes the 21st century unique is the speed and growing number of pandemics.
The threat posed by emerging infectious diseases and pathogens will not be resolved by simple measures. There are no silver bullets. The question that keeps physicians, medical entomologists, virologists and public health workers awake at night is, “Will this be the big one?” No one knows for sure.
Fortunately, to date, the mortality rate for those contracting 2019-n-CoV appears to be low. Equally important, preliminary reports suggest that the person-to-person transmission rate for this, though greater than SARS or influenza, is significantly less than other infectious diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis. Viruses, however, are notorious for changing. That is why the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, said combating this public health threat is WHO’s highest priority.
The new Cold War
The 2019-n-CoV belongs to the family of coronaviruses that include the common cold. Seventy-three years ago, Bernard Baruch coined the phrase “cold war” to describe the increasingly chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. American scientists, medical researchers and academicians must take the lead in waging a new cold war against emerging pathogens, vector-borne diseases and antibiotic-resistant infections.
Sadly, there is scant evidence that our political leaders recognize this existential threat. In 2018, 12% of the CDC’s annual budget was devoted to the Prevention and Public Health Fund. This is a proverbial “drop-in-the-bucket.”
Both the Chinese and U.S. governments disappoint:American trapped in Wuhan: Despite coronavirus, I won’t evacuate without my wife and son
The nonprofit Trust for America’s Health reported that since its inception in 2010, the CDC’s Prevention and Public Health Fund has experienced $11.85 billion in funding cuts. The National Association of County and City Health Officials noted in a recent report that President Trump’s proposed FY 2020 budget “includes extreme cuts in public health programs and priorities.”
Particularly noteworthy in the President’s budget proposal was a $103 million reduction in funding for public health measures directed at emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases. Even more troubling was the President’s decision to slash $187 million from research on core infectious diseases and cut $31 million from the CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Initiative.
For now, all that most of us can do about the coronavirus 2019-n-CoV is remember not to panic, and to be sure to wash our hands and cover our noses when we sneeze. We can also, however, in this election year demand that our political leaders allocate the needed funds for research and disease prevention. Globalization, climate change, population growth and urbanization will produce a cascade of health challenges in the coming decades.
We will survive 2019-n-CoV. The larger question is, will we be prepared for the next public health crisis and the one after that?
Hippocrates was right. Desperate times require desperate measures. What measure could be more vital in these desperate times than for President Trump and Congress to look beyond their partisan factionalism and make a sustained, substantial commitment to protecting Americans’ health?
Gordon Patterson is a professor of history at Florida Institute of Technology. He is a specialist in environmental history and the author of the “Mosquito Wars” (University Presses of Florida) and “The Mosquito Crusades” (Rutgers University Press), studies of vector-borne diseases and mosquito control. This column originally appeared in Florida Today.