What else can you achieve?
It is still possible to at least contain the epidemic and thus prevent the worst. The measures that China has taken are draconian and extreme. None of us have ever seen anything like this in our lives. You would have to go back to Spanish flu by 1918 to find a similar level of social control, but even then it was probably not that drastic. But this has undoubtedly slowed the epidemic outside of China. One should not underestimate that; especially in the northern hemisphere, where we are in the middle of the flu season. If we delayed the epidemic by even two to four weeks, we would be out of the influenza season and the pressure on health systems would be less. That would save lives. Slowing down also means: We still have a time window to prepare.
What exactly should be done?
There are four areas. First: restrict social measures such as quarantine, hand hygiene, travel. They are very effective and most important at the moment. Second: increase the diagnostic capacities. Third: therapies. We need to research what drugs help against the virus. In Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have started, clinical trials have started to test antiviral drugs already on the market. We also have to make sure that there is sufficient capacity for treatments, such as ventilators, everywhere. And fourth: develop vaccines.
When can we expect vaccines?
We should be honest: if we are lucky, we will have a vaccine in at least one year. But it could also take a lot longer. We have been trying to find a vaccine against colds for 15 years, and for five years against Mers, so far without success. However, we should start research immediately. The disease could become endemic, so gain a permanent foothold, then we need vaccines.
These are big projects in the face of an illness that we know very little about.
The truth is, you never have enough information and you never will. But we can’t say we’ll be back in three months if we have enough data. We have to make decisions now. That means dealing with uncertainties. I know that it is extremely difficult to convey uncertainty and risks.
Some people say: You have warned us many times, and in the end it wasn’t that bad. This was the case with Sars and the 2009 flu pandemic, for example.
That’s true. Corona virus, like Sars virus, may disappear. However, things can turn out quite differently. China cannot maintain the quarantine measures forever, the pressure in the country is already enormous. We don’t know what happens then. We therefore have to cover ourselves in the worst case, just like taking out insurance for your own household. If we don’t use the time window we have for this, we may regret it. If the outbreak spreads further, the ramifications for the richer countries could be profound, but devastating for the poorer countries.