China has been struggling hard to wash its hands off its role in the spreading of the Wuhan Coronavirus pandemic. It has claimed that even calling it the Chinese Coronavirus or the Wuhan Coronavirus is ‘racist’. Since the pandemic first erupted in China, its response has been atrocious and utterly condemnable as it did not bother to take any steps to prevent the spreading of the virus. At the heart of it all is the wet markets of Wuhan, where live animals are sold for consumption, and speculations that the virus was either accidentally or deliberately leaked by the Chinese government or that it could be a bioweapon.
As it so happens, China has been the ground zero of numerous epidemics over the years, epidemics that have inflicted great damage in terms of life and economy. From SARS to SARS-CoV-2 and the Asian Flu before that, China is a hotspot for the rise of severe epidemics. In this report, we shall go through a few of such devastating epidemics with their origins in China.
A H7N9 Flu
The first case of A H7N9 avian influenza (bird flu) was reported in Shanghai, China from where it spread to other regions. Later, it was confirmed that the virus jumped from chickens at a wet poultry market to humans by a study in the medical journal The Lancet. The virus is of concern as most patients have been observed to become severely ill due to the infection. Most patients reported recent exposure to live poultry or potentially contaminated environments. The silver lining appears to be that human-to-human transmission hasn’t been widely reported.
Having said that, limited human-to-human transmission has not been ruled out for the virus. Thus far, there have been five phases of the epidemic since it began in 2017, the latest begin in 2017. It hasn’t caused a significant damage to life as of yet. However, the virus does have the potential to cause widespread human devastation. “H7N9 viruses have several features typically associated with human influenza viruses and therefore possess pandemic potential and need to be monitored closely,” said Yoshihiro Kawaoka, one of the world’s leading experts on avian flu. “If H7N9 viruses acquire the ability to transmit efficiently from person to person, a worldwide outbreak is almost certain since humans lack protective immune responses to these types of viruses,” according to Kawaoka.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by SARS-CoV-1 first surfaced in 2002 in China. Fifteen years later, researchers discovered that the source of the virus could be traced to a group of infected bats at a remote cave in Yunnan province of China. SARS first appeared in November 2002 in Southern China before spreading around the world. It claimed the lives of 750 people across 37 countries before it was contained by placing patients in quarantine. The origin of the virus was traced to palm civets sold as exotic meat in southern Chinese food markets. SARS expert Jeremy Farrar noted, “There is no effective treatment and no vaccine. It was only contained the last time because it was possible to quarantine people while they were still infectious. Now we have a chance to create vaccines and treatments.”
The Wuhan Coronavirus is related to the SARS-CoV-1 and has been termed the SARS-CoV-2. The average incubation period of the SARS virus is 4-6 days, much shorter than the Chinese Coronavirus which has an average incubation period of two weeks. Symptoms of SARS are influenza-like and include fever, malaise, myalgia, headache, diarrhoea, and shivering (rigors). No individual symptom or cluster of symptoms has proved to be specific for a diagnosis of SARS.
H5N1 Bird Flu
The highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) virus was first detected in China in geese in 1996 during a poultry outbreak in Hong Kong and has since been detected in poultry and wild birds in more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA, “Since its widespread re-emergence in 2003, rare, sporadic human infections with this virus have been reported in Asia, and later in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Human infections with Asian H5N1 viruses have been associated with severe disease and death. Most human infections with avian influenza viruses, including HPAI Asian H5N1 viruses, have occurred after prolonged and close contact with infected birds. Rare human-to-human spread with this virus has occurred, but it has not been sustained and no community spread of this virus has ever been identified.”
Like avian viruses, the H5N1 has great pandemic potential. If the virus mutates to a form which can efficiently cause human-to-human transmission, then widespread devastation can be expected. Since emerging out of China, the virus has been reported from various other countries. Six countries are considered by the CDC to be endemic for Asian HPAI H5N1 virus in poultry (Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam).
Hong Kong Flu (1968)
The Hong Kong Flu which emerged in Hong Kong in 1968 killed an estimated one million people all over the world between 1968 and 1969. It was caused by an H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus, descended from H2N2 through antigenic shift. The first recorded case of the outbreak appeared in Hong Kong on the 13th of July, 1968. By the end of the month, extensive outbreaks of the virus was reported in Vietnam and Singapore. By September, the flu had spread to India, Phillippines, Australia and Europe. It became widespread in the United States by December 1968. It reached Japan, Africa, and South America by 1969.
The virus had a low case-fatality ratio (CFR), it was below 0.5% of the cases. The virus is believed to have infected 500,000 residents in Hong Kong alone, an estimated 15% of the population. About 100,000 people died in the United States alone. The H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza A virus.
Asian Flu (1957)
The Asian Flu, caused by the H2N2 virus, is believed to have been originated in China although CDC claims that the first reported case observed in Singapore in February 1957. However, most sources say that the virus was first reported in Guizhou province the same month in the southwest region of China. Estimated deaths caused by the virus range between one million to two million worldwide, the CDC puts it at 1.1 million with 116,000 in the United States itself. The flu impacted the economy gravely as well and India is believed to have suffered over a million cases as well.
China: A Hotspot for pandemics?
As early as in November 2017, the Smithsonian Mag published a detailed report on the H7N9 epidemic where it asked its readers the question, “Is China Ground Zero for a Future Pandemic?” Three years later, the question appears to have been answered. President Trump’s trade czar, Peter Navarro, described China as a “disease incubator,” and that was before the outbreak of the Wuhan Coronavirus. Dr. Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, said, “There is quite a fair amount of epidemics originating in China or passing through China.”
There are numerous factors that make China a breeding ground for deadly viruses. The prominent among them being the unhealthy dietary preferences of the population. With epidemics originating from the country at such an alarming frequency, it could very well be that an even deadlier virus than the Wuhan Coronavirus emerged from China. Under such circumstances, it is of paramount importance that the world begins taking a greater interest in the underbelly of the country, in order to ensure the safety and security of its own population. Failing to do so could lead to a pandemic that has even more devastating consequences than the Wuhan Coronavirus.