- - Monday, March 23, 2020

Over the past 17 years, infectious diseases — either pandemics or global epidemics — have taken the lives or hospitalized hundreds of thousands of people: SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Ebola, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) H1Ni (Pandemic Influenza) and the coronavirus (COVID-19). 

We’re living in an interconnected globalized world, with more international trade and more people traveling, greater population density, inadequate public health systems, while witnessing the impact of climate change. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that infectious diseases know no borders or boundaries. If unchecked, bacteria, viruses and other unknown pathogens could spread quickly and exponentially, worldwide, despite progress made with antibiotics, vaccines and antiviral drugs.

On Dec. 31, 2019, China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of “Wuhan pneumonia cases of unknown origin.” On Jan. 30, 2020, the WHO declared a public health emergency. Media reporting, however, states that initial reports of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan surfaced in mid-November, with additional media reports that doctors in the Wuhan Central Hospital warned of a SARS-like disease in late December, only to be accused by security services of making false statements.

One of the doctors who alerted the public was Li Wen Liang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital. He died on Jan. 30, 2020, of the COVID-19 virus. On Jan. 21, 2020, Chinese authorities confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus and on Jan. 23, 2020, Beijing ordered the lock-down of Wuhan. China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention had declared that the virus originated in Hubei Province, with the capital in Wuhan.

Some of the lessons learned from the 2003 SARS pandemic in China were: The importance of rapid response to detect and isolate patients, and to limit transmission and reduce opportunities for transmission within health care facilities. Early detection and open communication facilitated the immediate response measures necessary to control the SARS epidemic.

It appears that the authorities in China did not act quickly enough to detect and isolate patients to limit transmission of the virus. Once they did, with the Jan. 23 lock down of Wuhan, the number of cases and deaths started to decrease, while the number of cases in East Asia, Europe and the United States increased significantly.

The spread and severity of this novel coronavirus (COVID-19) — affecting more than 100 countries with tens of thousands of cases within a few months — was declared a pandemic by WHO on March 11. According to recent media reports, the situation in China, with close to 9,000 deaths and more than 200,000 cases, has leveled, while cases and deaths in Europe and the United States are rising.

Recently, Li Jian Zhao, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted: “… It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation.” Mr. Li followed with another tweet asking his followers on Twitter to share an article arguing that the virus originated in the United States. On March 11, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned his Chinese counterpart, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, not to spread outlandish rumors in an attempt to shift the blame for the pandemic to the United States.

In late February, a WHO delegation was permitted to visit Wuhan to discuss COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had offered to send a team of experts to China to learn more about the virus and to assist. Unfortunately, the CDC was not invited to visit with counterparts in China.

One would hope that the United States and China could come together on humanitarian issues as important as pandemics that could kill millions of innocent people. The United States and China, since normalization of relations in 1979, have cooperated on a myriad of international issues in the ’80s, ’90s and the 2000s. Economically, we’re interconnected. We have different political systems and a number of irritants in the bilateral relationship that requires close attention. But the COVID-19 pandemic affects the well-being of all people; it requires close and immediate U.S.-China cooperation.

So, China should stop with the disinformation media campaign and engage with the CDC on the COVID-19 pandemic. And the United States should follow WHO guidance and call the pandemic COVID-19. Both should refrain from recriminations.

In an emergency like this, enlightened leadership is necessary.

• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center and the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.

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