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EDITORIAL: Vigilance required in fighting virus


It looks like there might be one positive result of the decline in Chinese visitors to Taiwan since Beijing changed its policies last year — fewer Chinese tourists visiting over the Lunar New Year holiday, thereby reducing the risk that some might be carrying the novel coronavirus 2019 (2019-nCoV) responsible for an outbreak of pneumonia in Wuhan that began late last year.

Citing the possibility of limited human-to-human spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Thursday upgraded its travel alert for Wuhan. The day before, it had officially listed the virus as a category-5 communicable disease, which means doctors and medical institutions must report suspected cases within 24 hours of diagnosis, crucial given the number of Taiwanese living or working in China who are expected to return home in the coming days.

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Thailand and Japan are among the countries that are stepping up their checks on visitors from China, after Bangkok confirmed a second case of the virus in a visitor and Tokyo reported a Chinese man had become ill while in Wuhan before returning to his home in Japan.

Ever since word of a mystery illness first emerged, there was well-deserved concern that it might prove to be another virus like SARS, which sickened thousands and killed about 800 people, including 37 in Taiwan.

While China appeared to be more forthcoming about the Wuhan outbreak, and welcoming of outside researchers wanting to learn more about the disease, as so often is the case with public health in that nation, questions remain about when and where the virus first appeared and how extensively it might spread.

A multinational research team on Monday announced that 2019-nCoV is at least 70 percent similar in its genetic makeup to the SARS virus, although apparently “clinically milder” in terms of severity, fatality and transmissibility.

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Just two deaths have been reported so far.

SARS reminded the world just how fast a virus can spread, how crucial the free flow of information between international public health connections is, and just how closemouthed and hindering the Chinese government can be.

It is also worth remembering the uphill battle that Taiwanese authorities and then-WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland faced in 2003 to get information and help, even as SARS quickly spread to Hong Kong and then Taiwan.

As Brundtland recounted during a visit to Taipei two years ago, she had to argue that to deal with global health threats, “we need every country to be on board in each local area,” something so basic that it should go without saying.

Yet it was Beijing, at its obstructionist best, that fought the hardest to prevent the WHO or other organizations and nations from sending experts to help Taiwan, arguing that it would handle things since “Taiwan is a province of China,” even though it was not doing anything.

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A diagnostic test for 2019-nCoV has been developed by German researchers, who on Thursday said that their test protocol was being made available through the WHO, and laboratories could order a molecule to compare patient samples with a positive control.

Hopefully, the same bottlenecks that posed such a public health threat to Taiwan in 2003 would not hinder the CDC from obtaining the test protocol and molecule sample.

Many experts warn that it is too early to say that the health threat posed by the new virus is under control, since its source and its host(s) have yet to be identified, not to mention that it will be very difficult for Beijing’s call for a voluntary quarantine in Wuhan of those who might have been exposed to the virus to be maintained over the Lunar New Year holiday, when millions of Chinese travel at home and abroad.

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