The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic, which struck China’s Hubei province in December 2019, now has the potential to become a pandemic across the world, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). According to the WHO February 25 situation report, 80,239 people (including 908 new cases in the last 24 hours) in 33 countries have been affected by the virus. China topped the list of affected countries with 77,780 cases (518 new cases) with 266 deaths.
Only a week earlier, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement to the Politburo of the CPC that the coronavirus had not yet peaked made a case for continuing with the strict centralised measures to control movement of people for work or travel. Chinese authorities, in an unprecedented move, have announced the postponement of the National People’s Congress, the country’s parliament, after President Xi warned that the coronavirus was the “worst public health crisis facing the country” since the founding of the PRC.
The just-concluded WHO-China joint mission has made a range of findings about the transmissibility and the severity of the disease and the impact of measures taken. Dr Tedros Adhanom, Director General of WHO, in a press briefing to release the report on February 24 said that in China the epidemic peaked and plateaued between January 23 and February 2. It is small consolation to other countries like South Korea, Iran and Italy where the virus has spread rapidly, that the novel corona-virus is declining steadily in China since February 2 as stated by the Director General.
The joint mission found the fatality rate in China to be between 2 percent and 4 percent in Wuhan, the epicentre of the viral attack, and 0.7 percent outside Wuhan. People with mild attacks recovered in two weeks, while people with severe or critical disease recovered within three to six weeks.
The WHO is yet to describe the epidemic as a “pandemic”. Usually, the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society determine whether to call it a pandemic. In the words of Dr Adhanom, “For the moment we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.”
In WHO’s assessment, the virus has the “pandemic potential”. Describing the current situation, the head of WHO added, “What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world, affecting countries in different ways and requiring a tailored response.” While the sudden increase in new cases was certainly very concerning, using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.
He said “this is not the time to focus on what word we use…we do not live in a binary, black-and-white world. It is not either-or. We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic”.
However, the world does not seem to care about the semantics describing the virus as epidemic or pandemic. The world view was reflected in CNN headlines of the virus story: “DOW plunges 1000 points on Coronavirus fears; gains of 2020 wiped out” and “Coronavirus cases top as markets plunge in pandemic fears.” Summarising the global impact of the virus, the South China Morning Post, the Alibaba-owned Hong Kong daily, was more forthright. Its opinion piece was headlined “Whatever the trigger, a global financial melt-down is inevitable.”
In recent times, no other happening, let alone a virus attack, in a country has had such a huge worldwide impact. Even the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak in the US due to which over 60 million Americans were affected, resulting in 274,304 hospitalisations and 12,469 deaths did not have such an effect.
While there has been an outpouring of spontaneous sympathy for the Chinese people and all those affected by COVID-19, countries have reacted with extreme caution in their response. Most countries, including India, have shut the door for transit of people and goods from and to China. The same restrictions are being applied to other frontline countries affected by the viral attack in Iran, the GCC, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.
As globally networked media kept track of the rapid spread of COVID-19, social media has gone into full throttle with real-time information interlaced with misinformation; quite a few even suggested home remedies and spells to tackle the virus threat. Social media audiences were attracted in huge numbers to recycled stories speculating about COVID-19 as China’s bio-weapon experiment gone wrong.
In particular a tweet by Kyle Bass, a businessman, claimed “A husband and wife Chinese spy team were recently removed from a Level 4 Infectious Disease facility in Canada for sending pathogens to the Wuhan facility” was retweeted over 12,000 times. The tweet linked to CNBC News’ July 2019 report that the researcher and her husband (branded “Chinese spies” in social media) and some of their graduate students were escorted out of the National Microbiology Lab (NML) in Winnipeg, amid RCMP investigation into what was being described as possible “policy breach” and “administrative matter”. The conspiracy story that figured in a video on Chinese social media Tik Tok was watched more than 350,000 times. US Republican Senator Tom Cotton gave further credence to the speculation by persistently raising the possibility that the virus had originated in a high security biochemical lab in Wuhan.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, a subsidiary of the state-owned research body, Chinese Academy of Sciences, was opened five years ago when a decision was taken after the last deadly SARS coronavirus attack in 2003. Scientists carried out virus research at the institute with the highest level of biological containment available in China. According to a report in The New York Times, the lab came under the spotlight in January 2020, after Chinese scientists said “the virus could have a connection to bats via an intermediary, such as some form of game sold at a seafood market in Wuhan. This seems to have triggered the theories of novel coronavirus originating from game meat in the market.”
China’s low international public credibility a kernel of truth in the news report on two Chinese scientists working in PHAC and their visit to China probably resulted in the persistence of conspiracy theories.
According to a January 27, CBC report, Dr Xiangguo Qiu, a medical doctor and virologist from Tianjin, China, came to Canada for graduate studies in 1966. Qiu continues to be affiliated with the university there and has brought many students to help in her work. She developed a treatment for the deadly ebola virus, which killed more than 11,000 people in Africa (2014-16). Her husband, Keding Cheng, works at the Winnipeg lab as a biologist. He has published research papers on HIV infection, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), E.coli infections, etc. It said, a month later, CBC discovered the scientists at the NML had sent live ebola and henipah viruses to Beijing on Air Canada flight on March 31. According to PHAC all federal policies were followed. However, the agency would not confirm if the March 31 was part of the RCMP investigation.
The Chinese government has tried to crack down upon social media posts on the viral attack. In spite of this, the quick spread of unverified information and misinformation even in that controlled society has dramatically demonstrated social media’s enormous influence in conditioning public perceptions.
The moral of the story is: all government agencies have to learn to establish their credibility and develop the art of communicating to the public immediately to quell rumours and misinformation. There is a Chinese saying: “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” Unfortunately, the State, confronted with the challenges of social media, will have to learn not only to build walls to ward off misinformation but also to build windmills to take advantage of social media’s capability to develop a counter-narrative.
The international Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons (CPSBT) and their destruction, was signed on April 10, 1972, and came into force on March 26, 1975. It is now ratified by 180 countries. The CPSBT is special because, unlike other international conventions based on the Geneva Conventions or Rome Statute, it was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons listed as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
India ratified the CPSBT on July 15, 1974. Since then India has improved its capabilities in biotechnology largely for peaceful use. The country has well-developed biotech infrastructure with well-qualified scientists experienced in infectious diseases and bio-containment laboratories including Biosafety levels 3 and 4. India has avowed not to make biological weapons. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) primary research lab is located in Gwalior, MP. Its work focuses on countering biological threats like anthrax, brucellosis, cholera, plague, small pox, viral haemorrhage fever and botulism.
The Indian armed forces are trained for nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) warfare. In 2003, after AlQaeda training manuals revealed that terrorists were trained in the production and use of toxins such as ricin, Indian security agencies also became concerned at the possibility of terrorists launching biological attacks. Since then much progress has been made in training troops in NBC warfare and to handle biological attacks by terrorists. India and the United States signed a new 10-year defence framework agreement on June 3, 2015. Its provisions include working cooperatively to develop defence capabilities, including in NBC protection.
—The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute
Lead picture : UNI