'Learn your lesson, be prepared for Nipah'
In a gripping narrative, a veteran science journalist lays out the shocking story of how the pandemic happened, and what India should do if Nipah isn't to leave us worse off
When SARS-CoV-1, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, was first noted in Guangdong province of China in 2002, doctors saw an unusual pneumonia. It killed one in 10 infected people and was far more lethal than the current SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the pandemic we are experiencing. Back then, scientists were working on vaccines for the Coronavirus, but thought SARS-CoV-1 had been eradicated. Had they developed diagnostics at the time, we would have been better prepared to fight COVID-19 today, believes science journalist and author Debora MacKenzie.
In her latest book titled, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should have Happened and How to Stop the Next One, MacKenzie lays out an eye-opening full story of how and why the pandemic happened. Drawing on three decades of reporting on emerging diseases, she explains how Coronavirus went from a potentially manageable outbreak to a global pandemic. "Pneumonia of an unknown cause is always worrying. Respiratory diseases are the hardest to control. So early on, in December 2019, when the news broke of an outbreak in Wuhan, I thought, oh boy! Here we go."
She makes it clear in the acknowledgments, though, that this is a "crash" book, written at breakneck speed, for a time when there is a massive demand for knowledge about the virus. "I had to collate previous findings and what scientists had told us earlier about a possible pandemic. In vivid detail, I have tried to take a reader through the arrival and spread of Coronavirus, making clear the steps that governments knew they could have taken to prevent or at least prepare for this," she adds.
While she has discussed the many failures of the Chinese authorities in dealing with the early stages of the pandemic, she has also noted what they did right eventually. "Both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 have originated from bats; this is a known fact. In 2003, China failed to report the disease to the WHO in time. They repeated the same mistake with the COVID-19 outbreak. And I believe, largely, the hierarchical system in China is responsible for this. The local doctors and experts claimed it was just a flu, but when the top people found out it was much serious a problem, they took immediate action." It was on January 20, that things began to change rapidly in China, MacKenzie feels. "The Chinese authorities immediately isolated cases, their contact tracing was top-notch, they shut down cities and transportation. But we all wish that they had informed the world about the virus earlier, when the first transmission happened in mid-November 2019."
Talking about the origin of COVID-19, MacKenzie says horseshoe bats probably transmitted the virus directly to humans. "If China had not censored the brave doctors treating early cases in Wuhan, who tried to alert the world to what was happening, if the authorities had cancelled civic gatherings and sealed off the city, and if they had admitted that the infection was moving between people, that might have slowed the epidemic to make COVID-19 much less damaging, MacKenzie believes.
But she leaves the specifics of who got what wrong for another day, and prefers to focus on the world not repeating previous mistakes. "The previous viruses should have prepared us, but the shocking public health failures paved the way. While SARS was clumsier while spreading, it has a 10 time higher death rate than Coronavirus. A lot of experts had said back then that another outbreak will happen. But no one paid heed. We need governments that listen to their scientists," she warns.
MacKenzie says no country wants to report an outbreak of a virus. "Chinese officials were more open about COVID-19 than they were 17 years ago about SARS, but still they delayed reporting person-to-person spread. We need an international network, wherein information is passed on without delay. So if one country reports an outbreak, the others should be willing to step in and help."
Animal Husbandry department officials deposit a bat into a container after catching it inside a well in Kerala, in 2018, when the Nipah virus (carried by fruit bats) had killed 17 people in the state. PIC/AFP
With specific reference to India, she warns of putting the lessons learnt during Coronavirus to face the Nipah virus. Named after a village in Malaysia, Sungai Nipah, the Nipah virus infection is on top of everyone's horror list. In Malaysia and Singapore, it occurred in those with close contact to infected pigs. In Bangladesh and India, the disease has been linked to fruit bats. "Kerala did a fantastic job of containing the spread of the virus. But right now, the world knows Nipah [which has a 50 per cent death rate] is still somewhere in India. Before it spreads elsewhere, we need to find a vaccine. We should not wait this one out. Every village should have kits to diagnose Nipah, and be prepared before it spreads."
Lastly, she feels that human interaction with bats needs to end, once and for all. "With no fault of their own, because of their physiology, bats carry many viruses. They have been responsible for many outbreaks in the past. We need to stop consuming them in the form of food as well as medicine."
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