Medical staff transfer a patient to Jin Yintan hospital in Wuhan, China, on January 17. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Medical staff transfer a patient to Jin Yintan hospital in Wuhan, China, on January 17. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

In the early 2000s a virus emerged in mainland China. It would eventually be called severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Not, of course, to be confused with our revenue service. Now another “coronavirus” has emerged in China.

This one is in its infancy, but has already killed 25 people in less than a week and infected hundreds. China and the world are desperately trying to contain its spread so that it does not end up remotely like SARS.

It should be remembered that SARS  killed almost a thousand people, 8,000 were infected and the disease spread to countries as far afield as the US and Canada. At the time the Chinese were accused of keeping the epidemic largely to themselves until it was spreading beyond their borders. This arguably cost lives as a little warning is worth an enormous amount in matters like this. At least this time the Chinese have been more forthcoming but, this notwithstanding, the virus has already made its presence felt in South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan.

It is quite possible that this one will fizzle out, but with 25 dead in about a week and hundreds (some say thousands) of infections, this appears to be unlikely. It is instructive that the Chinese are not taking any chances. The city of Wuhan, where this virus originated, has been locked down. TV images show a ghost town despite the fact that it has about  11-million inhabitants. Only in China, with its largely authoritarian bent, would it be possible to lock down a city of this size. Can you imagine the outcry if the British tried to quarantine London. 

There is no way into or out of Wuhan. No trains, no flights, no buses and the indications were that road access was also being closed. This — coming at Chinese new year, when many millions of people are on the move, travelling to be with loved ones in other parts of the country — shows just how big a deal it is.  China expanded restrictions to two nearby cities, Ezhou and  Huanggang, later on Thursday.

 Clearly the Chinese do not want to again be accused of keeping the world in the dark when there is a potentially dangerous health situation developing.

Where do these viruses come from? The science says they come from animals and migrate to humans. This is most unusual but it does happen. Apparently the trigger is the consumption of infected wild meat. It is common knowledge that some very strange meals are considered delicacies in China. For example, the meat from wild civet cats and snakes is highly sought after. Indeed, consumption of wild, infected civet cats was identified as the cause of the SARS virus 17 years ago.

It should be remembered that the cause of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and hence the disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome (Aids), has been deemed to be the consumption of infected wild green monkeys in central West Africa. HIV/Aids has been one of the costliest health issues in modern human history — not only in terms of deaths but also in terms of the resources the disease has devoured over the years. The hygiene in Chinese wild meat markets should now be a matter of great concern.

Thus far SA’s response has been low key, but with China  providing many of our tourists it is to be hoped plans are in place.

We should pray that this virus is contained before it becomes an epidemic or a pandemic spreading across the globe. On Thursday the World Health Organisation had yet to decide if it constituted a global health emergency. Hopefully not.

The second thing we should pray for is that the scientists of the world collaborate on finding ways to prevent the viruses from developing at all. Even if this one is a storm in a teacup, it must be only a matter of time before something really bad develops — as bad or worse than HIV. And we surely do not want to go down that road.

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