January 27, 2020

IntelBrief: The Global Health Challenges Posed by the Spread of Deadly Viruses 

Passengers wear masks to prevent an outbreak of a new coronavirus in a subway station, in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung).
  • The Coronavirus continues to spread from Wuhan, China, as global health authorities work to contain the spread of the disease.
  • In a globalized world with abundant transportation modes and consistent cross-border movements of people, diseases can spread rapidly.
  • Over the past two decades, a number of global health emergencies have overwhelmed states, including SARS, MERS, the Zika virus, the Ebola virus, and various strains of the so-called bird flu.
  • Addressing global pandemics requires strategic international coordination; pandemics emanating in countries that restrict information flows are especially challenging, as responses can be slow, incomplete and ineffective.   

The pneumonia-like Coronavirus continues to spread outwards from the epicenter in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China, as global health authorities and world leaders work to figure out how to contain the spread of the disease. Wuhan is a transportation hub with high-speed rail connections to some of the most populated cities in China. Countries have already begun attempting to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan and so far, there are reportedly confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Australia, Malaysia, Nepal, Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, France and the United States. Several dozen people have already died, with thousands more affected. In a globalized world of constant transportation and consistent movements of people across borders, diseases can spread rapidly. Authorities are focusing on a food market in Wuhan that sold live cats, dogs, snakes, and rodents, among other animals, as the possible vector of this rapidly spreading virus. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) held an emergency meeting in Geneva, Switzerland last week, but has not yet declared the Coronavirus to be a global health emergency, although this remains a possibility depending on how the virus continues to spread. The WHO was created in 1948 to fight against disease and promote health, but it still has a limited mandate and global cooperation in the wake of spreading pandemics has been strained. The 2005 International Health Regulations lay out an agreed upon framework for governments to identify and report disease outbreaks, but many countries are still lacking the capacity to do so, including technical means and financial support. According to Time, the number of new diseases per decade increased fourfold over the past six decades and the number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled since 1980. Over the past two decades, a number of global health emergencies have overwhelmed states, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the Zika virus, the Ebola virus, and various strains of the so-called bird flu. These viruses have originated in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, demonstrating how this challenge is truly global in nature. 

Beyond the obvious health impact, there are a number of other implications for international security, global financial markets, and worldwide travel and transportation. Global health issues and the spread of disease are inextricably linked with some of the most dynamic challenges the international community faces today and in the near future. As the climate continues to change and temperatures grow increasingly warmer, contagious viruses can expand the number of disease-carrying animals and insects that humans are exposed to, including mosquitoes. In East Africa, swarms of desert locusts have devastated crops and agriculture, exacerbating issues of food insecurity. There are also concerns about terrorists and other non-state actors attempting to harness the power of new technologies to experiment with genetic tools and synthetic biology in an effort to weaponize smallpox or any number of other deadly viruses. The UN has responded to global health epidemics in the past with some level of effectiveness, such as the 2014 UN response to the Ebola virus, which included a UN Security Council resolution aimed at strengthening technical leadership and operational support to Governments and other partners to address the virus. 

Beijing has restricted travel of tens of millions of citizens, coming right in the midst of China’s Lunar New Year, a time when people are traveling across the country to visit relatives. Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared that his country would ‘beat the epidemic through prevention and control.’ Otherwise, the Chinese Communist Party has not provided regular updates on the situation as it unfolds. One of the major concerns about a pandemic that emanates in a country like China—one that notoriously restricts the flow of information—is the raft of potential challenges for global health authorities attempting to respond to the outbreak with effective measures, even as the government is less than transparent. Moreover, rumors and conspiracy theories have already proliferated online, as disinformation surrounding the origins and cures of the virus are circulating, causing more confusion and panic throughout the general public, further complicating the job of public health authorities and those tasked with stopping the spread of Coronavirus.


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