March 11, 2020 | From STAT
For a veteran epidemiologist, an authority on homeland security, and a global health reporter, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is the type of emergency they had long anticipated. But now that it is here, the three experts said Friday, they still couldn’t help but feel the monumentality of what they were watching unfold.
“It’s the most daunting virus that we’ve contended with in half a century or more,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said at a panel discussion Friday at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
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Helen Branswell, STAT’s infectious diseases and public health reporter, has covered emerging pathogens since the 2003 SARS outbreak.
But with the new coronavirus, Branswell said during the panel, “It’s bizarre but I find myself startled. Having written about the possibility of something like this for years, I still find myself really startled that it’s happening, and I don’t know why that is.”
She compared the circumstances now to the summer of 2014, when Ebola was racing through West Africa and the world didn’t seem to have a plan to stop it. “Except that I never worried then about Ebola spreading in the city I lived in,” she said. “It’s different now.”
As the panel was occurring, the Cambridge-based drug company Biogen said that top executives had been at a meeting at a Boston hotel last week that was also attended by eight people who later tested positive for the coronavirus, which causes a disease that authorities have named Covid-19. The company asked many employees to work from home for the next two weeks. . . .
Panel moderator Rick Berke, STAT’s executive editor, asked the crowd of roughly 100 people if any of them had considered not coming to the event. A few raised their hands.
“Do I think that this is a bad idea?” Mina said when asked if the panel should be held. “I think we’re hitting the time in the course of this epidemic where we might consider that this should be one of the last types of events like this.”
Here are some highlights from the event.
Why this virus is different
The spread of the new coronavirus has been compared to influenza, which also causes a respiratory illness. But, as the panelists pointed out, there are no drugs or vaccines yet for treating or preventing the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, as there are for flu. In addition, we are exposed to different flu strains throughout our lives, which help us build immunity. No one had immunity to this new virus.
“We have an entirely susceptible population,” Mina said. “The potential for this to burn through a population very quickly is very high without extraordinary measures.”
As researchers race to study the virus, they are finding that it does not seem to be infecting great numbers of children, or at least making them very sick. (Experts around the globe are still trying to figure out just how broadly the infection has spread, given that many mild cases are likely to be missed.) But it is causing serious harm to older people and those with underlying diseases or weakened immune systems.
“This virus, on the one hand, there’s a saving grace that it doesn’t seem to be impacting our young, and that is amazing,” Mina said. “But the mortality rate among people who are getting infected above 80 years old is 15-plus%.”
How to mentally prepare for this pandemic
If you plan for the disruptions that the response to the pandemic could require, it will seem less unexpected when schools are canceled or you’re told to work from home, advised panelist Juliette Kayyem, the faculty chair of the Kennedy School’s homeland security program and a former homeland security official at the state and federal level.
“Get your head around this is practical,” she said. “It’s here, there are going to be massive disruptions to our social fabric in terms of your day to day. All of you have a part in stopping the spread of this … but we have to treat this as part of the plan. We’re at that stage now.”
Unlike with a natural disaster or terrorist attack, “we don’t have a boom moment,” she said, and the virus was more slow rolling. “When do you activate?” she said. “That’s sort of the challenge right now.”
Kayyem, who worked in the Obama administration, also made the point that the response will be a patchwork. Some schools will close, others will remain open.
Kayyem said that organizers of large events, including the presidential nominating conventions and the Olympics, need to start coming up with Plan Bs. The decisions about whether to actually go with these alternate plans can’t be made yet, but it is crucial to start developing contingencies.
“I cannot tell you when we’re going to activate and when it’s going to impact, but if the parties are not thinking about how you pick your nominee in a different manner, shame on them,” she said about the conventions.
“We don’t know where we will be at that moment,” she added. “I think we need to be comfortable making decisions in week allotments.”
(Excerpt from STAT. Article by Andrew Joseph.)