Sunday, March 22, 2020

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda - It's Human Nature

China “could’ve” told us sooner! Yes, but let’s look at the bigger picture.

In light of the glaring headlines yesterday, of our president insisting that China “could’ve told us earlier” about the virus, I got angry. I got angry at the president – which often happens these days. Others undoubtedly got angry with China, from the same headlines. Then I calmed down and did some research on what actually happened, and when.

As we all know, humans are conditioned to react unthinkingly to lurid headlines and sometimes-vicious accusations thrown out in the press—hence the popularity of “yellow journalism.” That’s our animal instinct. We regret, we question, we blame. For those of us who try to exercise our brain’s capacity to become more aware, thinking humans, however, it’s a good idea to check the facts. Here are a few I uncovered.

On December 16, a patient associated with the seafood market in Wuhan was hospitalized with infected lungs. Within a few days, reportedly, a lab realized the patient had a virus similar to SARS.

On December 27, a doctor in Wuhan reported the virus to public health officials, who began investigating its extent. On December 31, China reported the virus to the World Health Organization, who published 
a report on January 5  about an unknown virus associated with a seafood market. 

Separately, on December 30, a different Wuhan doctor warned his colleagues to wear protective gear because he was observing multiple patients with an unknown virus. Even though the virus was reported to the World Health Organization the next day, in early January this doctor was reprimanded and silenced by local police. He shut up, went back to work, caught the virus, and died -- but not before his warning got out to the world. This past Friday, the Chinese government formally apologized to the family of that second doctor.

The second doctor—the whistleblower—is the one we hear about, because he suspected human-to-human transmission long before China acknowledged it. Maybe even before China figured it out, definitively. This article is a good summary of that incident.

There was a second “whistleblower” attempting to spread the news on December 30 about a SARS-like virus. We’ve barely heard about her. She, too, was reprimanded in early January.

But note the timeline: on December 31, the report of a new virus was publicly available to the world. Even in the absence of details, such as the nature of the virus or number of infected humans, the CDC in the US started preparing immediately, including developing a test. By January 15 the US had banned foreigners who had been in China, and by January 17 the CDC was screening and isolating US residents returning from China. By January 21, the CDC announced availability of its test. Unfortunately, it was a little too late: the first infected person had arrived from Wuhan, unscreened, on January 15.

I’m not excusing China for its secrecy and delays. In early January, China was actively suppressing the “rumors” leaking out that the virus was like SARS. China didn’t formally acknowledge human-to-human transmission until January 21, and Wuhan was not locked down until January 23 -- allowing millions of people to leave the city. This article is a good summary of that timeline.

On the other hand, China did give a heads up to the World Health Organization on December 31. And on January 10, China publicized the genome of the virus, allowing scientists worldwide to begin multiple lines of research – leading to tests being made available in both Germany and the US within a few days. Today, China is assisting South Korea and Italy with medical expertise and supplies.

Yes, we “could’ve been” informed earlier of the number of cases and specific details. We could have responded differently in numerous ways in our own country. There is plenty of blame and responsibility to spread around.

What I want to emphasize, however, is that some public officials -- who take their responsibilities seriously -- did so in this case. Our CDC didn’t wait. The CDC acted quickly following the initial announcements, despite numerous obstacles, including a dearth of specific information and, possibly, resistance from our own government.

Let's remember to think, reflect, and seek the bigger picture, beyond the flagrant headlines. 

And, in this case, let's acknowledge the usefulness of public health officials, and applaud the actions they took. I would even venture to say: but for them, it could’ve been worse.

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