The spread of 2019-nCoV, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, from China to at least 11 countries, to date, including the United States, has led the disease and its growing impacts to become a trending topic in both the news and conversation.
Dr. Gerald Parker, the associate dean for Global One Health at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), is on the front lines among the U.S.’s leaders in response to the current outbreak; he and others continuously work to elevate the importance of pandemic preparedness and need for more effective biosecurity policies.
Parker and other leaders are closely following the fast-changing coronavirus and are looking at the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus (SARS) response as a model.
SARS, a related coronavirus that first appeared in Asia in 2002, spread worldwide in just a few months. Before the outbreak was contained in 2003, there were more than 8,000 confirmed cases and 774 deaths, with widespread disruption and significant economic losses in impacted communities.
“Lessons learned from SARS included significant shortfalls in early disease reporting, transparency, global disease surveillance systems, collaboration, and leadership,” Parker said. “SARS was a wake-up call that an outbreak anywhere can quickly become a risk everywhere and catalyzed global health public health preparedness efforts.”
The 2019-nCoV outbreak is a serious emergency in China, and it is not yet known how this will impact the global community.
“Rest assured, the global public health and scientific enterprises are on high alert and taking urgent actions building on lessons learned from SARS, Ebola, and influenza outbreaks,” Parker said. “However, we still have many unanswered questions in the early phase of this emergency that unfortunately require more time to evolve.
“Several reports are largely positive regarding improved transparency, disease reporting, and response in China and from the World Health Organization (WHO),” he said. “But there are also concerns that transparency and sharing of viral isolates and other data from China needed for research, vaccine development, and public health guidance are not where it needs to be to enable a more effective international response.
“Our scientific and public health understanding of the underlying science will evolve daily, maybe hourly, and public health authorities at all levels will have to react to new facts, take appropriate action, and communicate effectively to the public,” Parker said.
On Thursday, when news broke that a Texas A&M student in College Station was being quarantined for a suspected case of coronavirus (it was revealed Sunday that the test was negative), many in the local community began to worry about the disease with a new perspective. While this outbreak is concerning and has global implications, the current risk to the Bryan/College Station community is low, according to Parker.
“Regarding the suspect case in College Station, we should take reassurance that public health guidance to front-line health care providers is working in our community,” Parker said.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, has not declared a public health emergency of international concern for the coronavirus outbreak, but the WHO stressed that this outbreak is a serious emergency in China despite not yet reaching the threshold as a global emergency.
“This could change quickly, and I anticipate the outbreak will lead to an international emergency declaration,” Parker said.
As of this date, there are more than 2,800 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV and at least 81 reported deaths worldwide; more than 8,000 people are under observation. To date, serious illness and deaths from this novel coronavirus have been largely confined to individuals over the age of 50 with underlying health conditions, according to Parker.
Human-to-human spread is believed to have only occurred in close contact with family members and health care providers.
Chinese authorities have implemented extensive travel bands in Wuhan, where the virus was first detected. This functional quarantine was extended to several other major cities on Saturday, impacting upwards of 40 million people.
“This is an unprecedented action, particularly since the virus has already spread beyond that region,” Parker said. “Our policy research will attempt to determine what drove this extraordinary decision.”
Wuhan is also the home of a new biosafety level 4, the highest level of biosafety precautions, high-containment lab that is a “center of gravity” for research on SARS in China.
“The high containment lab in Wuhan has internationally renowned SARS scientists and I have colleagues in almost daily contact with this laboratory,” Parker said. “There are good lines of communications open at the scientist to scientist level.
“Research and our scientific enterprise in the U.S. and across the global are the foundation of preparedness and response for infectious diseases with pandemic potential,” Parker said.
Parker recently took on an additional duty as Chair of the National Institutes of Health National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). This federal advisory board informs policy by making recommendations to the federal government with a goal to enable essential research on enhanced potential pandemic pathogens with appropriate oversight.
“During the NSABB public meeting on Jan. 23-24 in Washington, D.C., the novel coronavirus outbreak was mentioned frequently during public presentations and board deliberations,” Parker said.
Texas A&M’s Global One Health aims to make the world safe and secure from emerging infectious with pandemic potential by promoting the One Health approach—the synergy of animal, human, and environmental sciences—to global health and security. Through Global One Health’s national and international outreach, as well as promotion of collaborative, zoonotic One Health research, and building of interdisciplinary learning environments, Parker continues to make advancements in policy, research, education, and service.
“There is no doubt the 2019-nCoV outbreak is a prime example of why the application and practice of One Health are essential to tackle global challenges, like infectious diseases with pandemic potential,” Parker said.
While waiting for further information, everyone can do their part to limit the spread of disease by washing hands, using hand sanitizer, and avoiding touching of the face. If you are showing any symptoms of illness, stay home and seek guidance from your health care provider.
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences;