“In the case of biological threats, that sense of urgency is lacking.  The world needs to prepare for pandemic in the same serious way it prepares for war.” – American billionaire Bill Gates


Truth is stranger than fiction, so goes a popular saying. But truth, in some instances, can foretell the future.

In 1981, American author Dean Koontz wrote a novel, The Eyes of Darkness, where he seemed to know the future.  He talked about a disease created at a research center in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China, home to over 11 million people.

In the novel, the best-selling suspense author called it Wuhan-400, which can kill thousands of people.  The virus was created in a Chinese military lab as part of its biological weapons program.

“It was around that time that a Chinese scientist named Li Chen moved to the United States while carrying a floppy disk of data from China’s most important and dangerous new biological weapon of the past decade,” Koontz wrote.  “They call it Wuhan-400 because it was developed in their RDNA laboratory just outside the city of Wuhan, and it was the fourth-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research center.”

Wuhan-400 is scary as it is lethal.  “It afflicts only human beings,” Koontz wrote in his novel.  “No other living creature can carry it.  And like syphilis, Wuhan-400 can’t survive outside a living human body for longer a minute, which means it can’t permanently contaminate objects or entire places they way anthrax and other virulent microorganisms can.  When the host expires, the Wuhan-400 within him perishes a short while later, as soon as the temperature of the corpse drops below eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit.”  

“A perfect weapon” was how the author called Wuhan-400.  “The Chinese could use Wuhan-400 to wipe out a city or a country, and then there wouldn’t be any need for them to conduct a tricky and expensive decontamination before they moved in and took over the conquered territory.”

The novel is only a mere creation of imagination by Koontz.  But to those who believe in conspiracy theories, Wuhan-400 is for real.  They are certain that the virus currently causing a panic all over the world “created at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s only level four biosafety laboratory, the highest-level classification of labs that work on the deadliest viruses.”

Only time could tell whether this conspiracy theory is accurate or not, the fact remains that before the year 2019 ended, “a cluster of pneumonia of unknown etiology” was reported in Wuhan.  It was not nine days later that the media reported that the cause of the viral pneumonia was a new type of coronavirus, which is different from any other human coronaviruses discovered so far.

“Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others that circulate among animals, including camels, cats and bats,” the Atlanta-based US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  “Rarely, animal coronaviruses can evolve and infect people and then spread between people.”

Such as has been seen with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).  SARS, first recognized in China, caused a worldwide outbreak in 2002-2003 with 8,098 probable cases including 774 deaths.  MERS, on the other hand, was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since caused illness in people from dozens of other countries.

“When person-to-person spread has occurred with MERS and SARS, it is thought to have happened via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread,” the CDC explains.

Coronaviruses are named for the crown-like spikes on their surface.  There are four main sub-groupings of coronaviruses, known as alpha, beta, gamma and delta.  Coronaviruses among humans were first identified in the mid-1960s.  So far, seven coronaviruses can infect people.

In the beginning, many of the patients in the outbreak had some link to a large seafood and animal market, suggesting animal-to-person spread.  In Wuhan, vendors legally sold live animals which are butchered and eaten.  “This is where you get new and emerging diseases that the human population has never seen before,” said Dr. Kevin J. Olival, a biologist and vice president of research with EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit research organization, who has tracked previous outbreaks, told New York Times.

For lack of name, scientists called it novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.  It wasn’t until February 11 that the World Health Organization (WHO) had given it a name: COVID-19.  In a media briefing WHO Director-General said: “We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or group of people, and which is also pronounceable and related to the disease.”

The virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2.  It is now present in different parts of the world, including the Philippines, where first death outside of China, was reported.  Hours after the United States confirmed its second case, American President Donald Trump tweeted: “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus.  The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency.”

But the good thing is: everyone is trying to cooperate.  “Just 10 days after the pneumonia-like illness was first reported among people who visited a seafood market in Wuhan, China, scientists released the genetic sequence of the coronavirus that sickened them,” wrote Carolyn Y. Johnson of The Washington Post.  “That precious bit of data, freely available to any researcher who wanted to study it, unleashed a massive collaborative effort to understand the mysterious new pathogen that has been rapidly spreading in China and beyond.”

That’s good news, indeed. “The pace is unmatched,” Dr. Karla Satchell, a professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, was quoted as saying.  “This is really new.  Lots of people (in science) still try to hide what they’re doing, don’t want to talk about what they’re doing, and everybody out there is like: This is the case where we don’t worry about egos, we don’t worry about who’s first, we just care about solving the problem.”

Dr. Ivan Hung, chief of infectious diseases division at the University of Hong Kong, sees the brighter side in all of these.  He said the ability to rapidly identify the virus in patients should help authorities to counteract its spread.  “So far, the virus is behaving in a less lethal manner than SARS,” he said.

Dr. Edsel Salvaña, an infectious disease specialist, molecular epidemiologist and the director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines, agrees. “As far as we know, this virus seems to be less deadly than SARS and is specifically deadly to elderly, the very young and those with medical conditions.”

According to the WHO, the incubation period – the time from exposure to onset of symptoms – is about two weeks.  The common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties.  In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.  

Scientists are still trying to figure out how SARS-CoV-2 is being transmitted.  However, it is believed that it can be transmitted like other coronaviruses and flu, which transmits through: direct contact with infected people and droplets (during the infected person’s coughing or sneezing).  It can also be transmitted with the tools used by infected people and then directly touching the nose, mouth or eyes.

Right now, there is still no specific cure or vaccine available against SARS-CoV-2.  “The main treatment is supportive care, including making sure the patient is getting enough oxygen, and using a ventilator to push air into the lungs if necessary,” the New York Times said, quoting Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, chairwoman of the public health committee of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, said another popular adage.  To reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the United Nations health agency advises people to do the following: avoiding close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections; frequent hand-washing (using alcohol-based hand rub if hands are not visibly soiled or soap and water when hands are visibly soiled), and avoiding close contact with live or dead farm or wild animals.

Other infection prevention and control (IPC) measures include: avoiding agglomerations and frequency of closed crowded spaces, refraining from touching mouth and nose, and maintaining distance of at least one meter from any individual with COVID-19 symptoms.

In case of coughing and sneezing, people are advised to cover the nose and mouth with flexed elbow or paper tissue.  The tissue must be disposed immediately after use and hands must be washed thereafter.

For those who have travelled in banned countries (where COVID-19 is present), particularly travellers with symptoms of acute respiratory infection, the WHO recommends that they should practice cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands).

For those who are suspected with the virus, the WHO advises that they improve airflow in living space where they are staying by opening windows and door as much as possible.

What about the use of face masks?  “Wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures to limit spread of certain respiratory diseases in affected areas,” the WHO says. “However, the use of mask alone is insufficient to provide the adequate level of protection and other equally relevant measures should be adopted.  If masks are to be used, this measure must be combined with hand hygiene and other IPC measures to prevent the human-to-human transmission of the virus.” 

In the Philippines, travellers who had been to countries where COVID-19 is reported, are advised to be quarantined for 14 days when they return home.  

As provided by the International Health Regulations of 2005, countries should ensure that “a functional public health emergency contingency plan at points of entry in place to respond to public health events.”