Pandemics: How do you prepare for a global viral outbreak?

Are pandemic outbreaks actually that difficult to predict and prevent, or are we just not learning from our experiences? 

Writer: Sofia Sancho
Editor: Alexandra David
Artist: Rosie Jarrett

Right now, we are in the midst of one of the biggest pandemics the modern world has experienced. It can seem like the outbreak of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is rushing along without resistance. In the last 20 years, we have had several pandemic and epidemic outbreaks, two of which were coronaviruses. We are many that have found ourselves asking if, with the lessons learned from earlier outbreaks, COVID-19 actually could have been prevented?

In the autumn of 2002, a new coronavirus known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), began spreading from southern China. In August of 2003, 8098 people had been diagnosed with the virus and 774 people had died. Despite apparent differences, especially in rate of spreading, SARS is one of the most similar viral outbreaks compared to the novel coronavirus. 

But if SARS was so similar to COVID-19, and we managed to stop it from transforming into a pandemic, how come we were seemingly surprised by the new coronavirus? Truth is the outbreak did not really come as a surprise. Since 2018, the WHO has added “Disease X” to their list of priority diseases. Disease X represents an unknown pathogen, and was added to the list to remind the organisation of the threat of diseases we are not already familiar with, making sure that there will always be funding and resources to fight new pathogens.  

The causations for viral outbreaks are complex, with biological and socioeconomic factors diligently intertwined. One important factor is human-animal contact. As our societies have evolved, our contact with animals, both wild and domesticated, has increased. This has opened up many opportunities for animal-exclusive pathogens to evolve and infect humans. SARS, and most likely the COVID-19 outbreak, can be trailed back to Chinese animal markets, a hotspot for these interactions. 

In some parts of China, eating wild animals from markets is an important part of the culture. It is easy to put the blame on others, and even though the government is now banning said markets, completely getting rid of them is going to take time and compromise. But even if prohibiting Chinese animal markets could have prevented this specific outbreak, it wouldn’t have stopped zoonotic diseases from evolving, as zoonotic events are not uncommon nor exclusive to China or Asia.

The world we live in today makes the question of the next pandemic outbreak a “when” rather than an “if”. We are still far away from being able to prevent viral outbreaks, but we have become better at preparing for them. The quick response from Chinese authorities is a good example of this: borders were closed, cities quarantined, and hospitals built in a very short time, which is crucial for slowing down transmission. 

Although it may seem far away at the moment, there will be a time when this pandemic has passed. When that time comes, instead of being consumed by if and how this specific pandemic could have been prevented, we need to remember to learn from our mistakes. To realise what this outbreak has taught us and how we can use that to continue moving forward towards the day when we might be able to stop a pandemic before it happens. 


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