In 2004, I did some reportage for the Royal Society from their meeting on emerging viral infections. The meeting was held just after the worldwide SARS outbreak that threw nations into chaos and had the more susceptible parts of the media hyping the end of the world. Of course, SARS, an emerging pathogen, was lethal and had devastating effects on thousands of people.
Ultimately, the first SARS outbreak was controlled, and a subsequent epidemic is yet to emerge. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, the disease caused by a highly infectious RNA coronavirus, remains in waiting. SARS is still an issue, it can, when required, undergo frequent mutations, which adds unpredictability to a future outbreak. There is no vaccine, assay, or treatment yet. Health officials can only resort to isolation and quarantine to control its spread.
In the meantime, scare stories surrounding the potential for avian influenza H5N1 have filled many column inches and web estate since that strain was first identified. We are, obviously, yet to succumb to an epidemic of global proportions of an evolved strain of H5N1 that could be transmitted person to person.
“At the peak of the worldwide SARS epidemic, apprehension arose out of partially disclosed, if not concealed, information on the current status,” says Yi-Chun Lin, at the Central Police University, in Taoyuan, Taiwan ROC. This he says led to many foreign companies to withdraw their business from Taiwan or move their bases elsewhere. At the time of the crisis, normal trading, investment and travel were suspended or came to a standstill. Some regions are yet to make a complete recovery from SARS and the advent of H5N1 in South Asia as well as the potential for the emergence of yet another virus or other pathogen has many investors wary of the region.
Lin suggests that proposals to be acted on in an emergency to help contain an emerging crisis, without obfuscation, ought to be put in place. This would allow foreign investors to undertake risk control assessment for this part of the world, ignore the scare-mongering, and be assured that whatever the next disease to emerge may be it will not have the shocking and devastating effects it otherwise would.
“SARS dramatically illustrated the wide-ranging impact that a new disease can have in a closely interconnected and highly mobile world,” Lin says, “The public anxiety it incited spread faster than the virus, causing social unease and economic losses.” The suddenness of the outbreak provided a critical test of medical systems, infection control policies, and tested many national disease response and crisis management abilities.
In a subsequent disease crisis, human lives will be at risk and economic stability [for what that is worth at the moment!] thrown into jeopardy. “It is thus important to learn from experience and enhance preparedness for future,” adds Lin.
Yi-Chun Lin (2009). Impact of the spread of infectious disease on economic development: a study in risk management Int. J. Risk Assess. Manage., 11 (3/4), 209-218