Science & Technology

Understanding the coronavirus

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated the novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak a public health emergency on Jan. 30, garnering increased attention from world leaders and national public health agencies. As concerns over the spread and severity of a wider 2019-nCoV outbreak continue to grow, researchers around the globe are working to understand the virus and develop new treatments as quickly as possible. 

On Dec. 31, China announced a small outbreak in the city of Wuhan of 27 patients with viral pneumonia. The first entire genome of the virus was sequenced on Jan. 10, and by Jan. 23, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) had announced that they were expecting to have a vaccine available within 16 weeks. While confirmed 2019-nCoV cases had skyrocketed past 11,000 by the end of the month, many countries established strong quarantine measures and were working on new methods to fight the virus. 

International and national health agencies’ immediate strategies to fight the ongoing spread of 2019-nCoV stand in stark contrast with previous global responses to past outbreaks. Dr. Brian Ward, a professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill, expressed his approval of how health officials have responded to the novel coronavirus. Ward cited increased preparedness in vaccine development frameworks and international cooperation as the major reasons for this early success. 

“2014 and 2015 was a watershed [in the Ebola outbreak],” Ward said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “The West-African Ebola outbreak was a big deal, because the pattern up until then had been an explosion [of a given infectious disease], followed by a scrambling to mobilize millions of dollars to get manufacturers to produce a vaccine, and then the virus was gone [before vaccines could return a profit].” 

Prior to the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, international strategies were largely focussed on ongoing threats to public safety, with little funding going towards the development of vaccines for diseases that had not yet infected humans. 

In the wake of that crisis, several governments and funding agencies identified the need for a centralized plan for developing and deploying new vaccines to prevent dangerous viruses and bacteria from entering the human population. CEPI was founded in Norway in 2017 as an international partnership of philanthropic and governmental foundations that agreed to direct continued funding to research for vaccine development. 

Before the 2019-nCoV outbreak in December, CEPI had already developed partnerships with labs working on vaccines for MERS Coronavirus, a close cousin of 2019-nCoV. Therefore, a framework was already in place for fast-tracking the development of vaccines for the new outbreak. 

Another important factor in formulating a rapid response to 2019-nCoV has been the cooperation of countries involved in the epidemic response. Ward commented on the increased transparency of the Chinese government to release information about the new virus, including its genome sequence, very early on in the outbreak.  

“[China had an] ‘anti-precedence’ with SARS where [the Chinese government] held back information,” Ward said. “With Zika, there was considerable reticence on the part of the Brazilians to release strains. The Indonesian government has stated as a policy that […] you can be thrown in jail for trying to carry an influenza virus out of the country in anything but your lungs.” 

National laboratories are typically wary to provide information about novel pathogens because they have the potential to benefit from the sales of new pharmaceuticals and can immediately protect their citizens. Countries are thus economically and politically disincentivized from sharing specimens with others so long as they can control the outbreak. 

The 2019-nCoV outbreak has already killed over 300 people and is likely to kill many more before the infection can be contained. However, lessons learned from previous epidemics and recent advancements in science may help researchers overcome what could otherwise be a devastating pandemic, both in China and around the world.

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