The world has been on edge in the early days of 2020 after a new, deadly strain of coronavirus was reported in China late last year. This coronavirus strain originated in the Wuhan province of China and has killed more than 100 people and infected over 8,100 there.
In the United States, six cases of the pneumonia-like illness have been confirmed, and it has quickly spread to countries including France, Japan, Nepal, Cambodia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Canada and Sri Lanka, plus Hong Kong and the island of Taiwan.
The first case in the United States appeared after a man from Washington state brought the virus back from Wuhan via plane in mid-January, and another traveler — a woman from Chicago — was confirmed to have brought the disease back from Wuhan as well. That woman passed the virus to her husband in the first case of person-to-person transmission within the States.
In the weeks since, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised its travel warning to a Level 3 (of three), its highest. The World Health Organization has issued a public health emergency as the number of people infected on mainland China rose above the SARS epidemic of 2003.
American Airlines has suspended routes to China in February and March. Following their lead, British Airways and Lufthansa have also suspended flights there, as well as airlines based in India and Kazakhstan.
With a travel ban in full effect out of Wuhan, it’s worth a look back in recent decades at the global response and subsequent mobilization of resources. Here are a few that prompted global action from scientists and governments alike in the 21st century.
China faced the skepticism of the international health community when it was discovered that the country had initially covered up the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2003. When a whistleblower told the world about the severity of the disease, China relented in letting the WHO help contain the highly infectious virus, which led to widespread changes in global health policy and an overhaul of China’s public health system. The WHO warned travelers away from visiting Beijing and Toronto, the first time in its history to issue such a sweeping alert.
China’s secrecy during the outbreak circumvented the WHO’s ability to declare a public health emergency, which is a useful tool in coordinating countries’ response to the spread of an infectious disease. When it was finally contained, SARS had infected more than 8,000 people in 30 countries across the world and killed 774 people worldwide, according to the CDC.
When the worst Ebola outbreak in history began in West Africa in 2014, the disease had no treatment or vaccine. Those affected faced a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. By that summer, Ebola had caused the deaths of more than 700 people, and when the first patient infected with the hemorrhagic fever came to the United States, panic set in.
The WHO declared a “public health emergency of international concern” just days after a case was discovered near Rwanda. The Obama administration responded to the outbreak in an unprecedented way, ordering thousands of soldiers to West Africa to assist in treatment. The WHO argued that a travel ban would negatively affect the countries of West Africa. From 2014 to 2016, 11 Americans who contracted the disease were treated, while 11,000 people across that region and the Congo died due to the epidemic.
Flaring up in Brazil in 2015, the Zika outbreak quickly spread across Central and South America through transmission from mosquitoes. The symptoms of the disease are mild, but the virus caused a scare in the United States due to its effects on pregnant women. In 2016, the WHO issued a travel advisory for Zika-impacted countries where the disease was linked to miscarriages, stillbirths and a birth defect called microcephaly. The outcomes of microcephaly in infants include intellectual disabilities, serious speech problems and motor problems, which led the WHO to declare a global health emergency to prevent the spread of the virus. The United States has seen about 20 cases of the Zika virus, and in the 88 countries where the disease has been reported, hundreds of thousands have been infected, with nearly 2,200 babies born with microcephaly.
Another disease that warranted the WHO’s highest level of alert was the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009 that is reported to have infected as many as 200 million people across the world. The swine flu pandemic, which originated as a respiratory illness in pigs, killed 358 children in the United States. It prompted travel restrictions in nearly a quarter of the countries in the world, and many imposed pork bans targeting NAFTA-affiliated countries.
At the height of the outbreak, a number of countries imposed travel restrictions on flights in and out of Mexico, which resulted in a 40 percent decrease in traffic volume. A vaccine has been developed for H1N1, but due to the cyclical nature of flu season, new strains pop up — e.g., H7N9 — which has caused a spike in flu-related deaths as recently as 2018.
The spread of inaccurate information became a central conflict amid the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome that was identified in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Worries over MERS (a strain of the coronavirus) began after the world’s slow response to the Ebola outbreak had the international community questioning the leaders of Saudi Arabia about the effects of the disease and the adequacy of Saudi health facilities. MERS killed at least 13 people, infected more than 100 and was brought to South Korea by a passenger who had traveled from Saudi Arabia in 2015, which tested the WHO’s rapid-response apparatus in controlling the disease’s spread. MERS led to two deaths in South Korea, the closing of 500 schools and more than 1,300 people quarantined.
Lauren Tierney, Tim Meko, Joe Fox, Simon Denyer, Lena H. Sun, Miriam Berger, Adam Taylor, Elanah Uretsky, Ishaan Tharoor, Lenny Bernstein, Bonnie Berkowitz, Laris Karklis, Shelly Tan, Denise Lu, Patterson Clark, Lena H. Sun and Anna Fifield contributed to this report.