How to Make Sure a Pandemic Like Covid-19 Never Happens Again

By Ross Pomeroy - RCP Staff
April 04, 2020
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The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic may still be in its early stages, and though it's difficult to see past shelter-in-place orders, infection reports, images of crowded hospitals, and record unemployment, you can rest assured in knowing that this public health crisis will eventually come to an end. It may take many months, but sports will resume, bars and restaurants will reopen; for the most part, life will return to normal.

But a comforting new normalcy must not be accompanied by complacency. There are lessons to be heeded, policy changes that must be implemented, and mistakes that cannot be repeated. Here are five ways the world can mitigate, or even prevent, a future pandemic.

1. Ban the sale of wild animals and freshly-slaughtered animals at wet markets in China and around the world. The likeliest source for the coronavirus is the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China (but this is still debated). A wet market also likely spawned the SARS outbreak in 2003. At this market and others like it, humans and wild animals gather in cacophonous, crowded spaces, exchanging goods, money, and germs. It was here where scientists hypothesize that the coronavirus jumped from a bat, then possibly to a pangolin, then on to humans. While wet markets offer a needed economic outlet for thousands of poor farmers, they are notoriously unsanitary and unregulated. At the Huanan Market, journalists documented animals being openly slaughtered and skinned while blood, urine, and feces drenched walkways. Sellers proffered a menagerie of animals including spotted dear, porcupines, otters, ostrich, crocodiles, and bats.

In this Feb. 5, 2020, photo, workers wearing protective gears prepare to spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus at Namdaemun Market in Seoul, South Korea.

In late February, the Chinese Communist Party banned wet markets, noting "it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crack down on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source." Let us hope this strong statement will be backed up with meaningful action.

2. Crack down on alternative medicine. Wikipedia defines alternative medicine as "any practice that aims to achieve the healing effects of medicine, but which lacks biological plausibility and is untested, untestable or proven ineffective." Homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, and traditional Chinese medicine are a few subsets. So if these disciplines are implausible, untestable, or even outright ineffective, what's the point? Proponents mumble about placebo effects and ask "what's the harm?" Past studies have decribed many harms, but this pandemic has plainly revealed more.

The exotic animal trade is a primary cause of novel disease outbreaks. And what is one of the biggest drivers of this trade? Traditional Chinese medicine. As part of this branch of alternative medicine, creatures like pangolins, donkeys, tigers, seahorses, rhinoceroses, and bats are killed and distilled into unproven folklorish remedies. Moreover, when outbreaks start, sickened people will seek out these supposed remedies rather than engage real doctors. Alternative medicine directly contributed to the start and spread of the coronavirus pandemic. It's time regulatory bodies across the world started treating alternative medicine like the public health menace that it is.

3. Make hand-washing ubiquitous. Hand-washing: it seems so simple, so perhaps that's why so many people ignore it. Around 30% of people don't wash their hands after using the toilet. Many more neglect to wash their hands before and after cooking. But washing your hands – for at least twenty seconds, with soap and water – makes a huge difference, drastically reducing the rates of diarrhea and respiratory illness in communities, according to the CDC. Hand-washing stations should be available and ubiquitous in movie theaters, restaurants, concert venues, sports stadiums, and especially airports. A recent MIT study found that if sixty percent of travelers at airports had clean hands, compared to just twenty percent now, global disease spread would slow by nearly seventy percent!

A woman wears a mask as she walks at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, in London, Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

4. Proactively fund pandemic response. Turn the clocks back to late January. Imagine if the U.S. Government had invested in a mass coronavirus testing and tracking system, a major stock up of ventilators and personal protective equipment, and a substantial build-out of hospital infrastructure. We could possibly have avoided closing schools and restaurants, shutting down sports leagues, instituting shelter-in-place orders, watching the stock market fall off a cliff, and spending $2.2 trillion on the largest bailout ever. Being proactive is almost always preferable to being reactive, and less costly.

5. End the censorship of science and heed scientific and public health experts. In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, all the way back in December 2019, Chinese officials actively attempted to censor and suppress news of the virus' spread rather than respond to it. As David Cyranoski reported for Nature News, inaction had deadly ramifications.

A model simulation by Lai Shengjie and Andrew Tatem, emerging-disease researchers at the University of Southampton, UK, shows that if China had implemented its control measures a week earlier, it could have prevented 67% of all cases there. Implementing the measures 3 weeks earlier, from the beginning of January, would have cut the number of infections to 5% of the total.

In the United States, a great many policymakers, including our president, have repeatedly ignored and openly ridiculed the advice of public health experts. Moreover, some administrations have been glaringly ignorant about the nature of the virus, undermining a collective and effective response.

Scientists sometimes tell us things we don't want to hear, but ignoring them and the evidence upon which they base their recommendations will not solve the genuine problems we face. We must learn that lesson if we want to prevent future pandemics.

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