Are we ready for a contagion?

Chay F. Hofileña
Lessons learned

While a restive Taal Volcano continues to preoccupy us, constantly reminding us of an imminent explosion that may or may not happen, a new type of disaster threatens to overwhelm health authorities if they fail to be responsive enough. But before discussing and summarizing the highlights of this new issue, you may want to review my newsletter last week on false news circulating in relation to Taal: During disasters, imagine a world with false news. 

Remember SARS (or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), that deadly virus that was first reported in 2002 when it surfaced in Guangdong, China? It’s been almost two decades ago, and it has resurrected via a new coronavirus strain, this time traceable to the city of Wuhan, located south of Beijing and close to Shanghai.

On Tuesday, January 21, Philippine health authorities announced they were investigating a possible case involving a 5-year-old boy in Cebu who came from Wuhan. (READ: DOH probes suspected case of ‘novel coronavirus’ in Cebu City)

The World Health Organization reported last January 9 that Chinese authorities had identified the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCov) as the cause of the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan in the province of Hubei. Since then, cases have been recorded in JapanThailand, and South KoreaOver 200 have been diagnosed in China to have contracted the virus and a 4th death (as of Tuesday, January 22) due to the coronavirus has been reported. The World Health Organization has raised the possibility of human-to-human transmission, raising alarm levels about a faster spread, although French epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet has downplayed fears, saying that this new virus in its present form appears to be “weaker.” Whether it will mutate bears watching.

SARS, which came after the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) virus, was associated with respiratory illness, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and fatigue, among others. MERS cases also reported similar symptoms, along with fever and cough. You may review our report in 2014 on MERS: FAST FACTS: The MERS Coronavirus. The first known cases involving the MERS virus occurred in Jordan in April 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionCoronavirus symptoms, according to a CNN report, “include a runny nose, cough, sore throat, possibly a headache and maybe a fever, which can last for a couple of days.”

Whereas the MERS virus is believed to have started with camels, the culprit for SARS, according to scientists, is the civet cat. The source of the new coronavirus strain is believed to be animals sold in a market in Wuhan. (READ other related stories below). In both virus types, transmission was made possible through respiratory secretions, contact with an infected person, and even handling of an infected person’s waste.


Good News & Lessons

The good news is, experience has hopefully taught disease prevention and disease control experts how to better deal with this new strain. What is critical is response time. Past accounts and reports on virulent viruses reveal some lessons worth remembering:

  • Prompt reporting and transparency make a difference. In the case of the SARS virus, China kept the outbreak hidden from the world for a good 2-3 months, hindering quick response from experts who could have contained the spread more quickly. Instead, close to 650 were killed in the mainland and Hong Kong in the years 2002-2003.
  • Information sharing is critical among countries to enhance response preparedness. China’s sharing of information about the genome sequencing of the coronavirus aided in the confirmation of the case in Japan. 
  • Screening processes at airports matter for early detection.
  • Hospitals and airports should have isolation or quarantine rooms.
  • Awareness of symptoms can lead to early detection by experts.
  • Public awareness and communication about precautionary measures is key.

In the past days, other major stories also grabbed the headlines before they were sidelined by the eruption of Taal Volcano and the coronavirus. Beyond the news reports, this is Newsbreak’s take on them:


1. The new Philippine National Police chief Archie Gamboa is a Davao boy known to have close ties with President Rodrigo Duterte. His short stint ends on September 2, 2020. Know more about him in Who is Archie Gamboa, the next Philippine National Police chief.

2. 2019 was a year marked by polio and measles outbreaks believed to be caused by the Dengvaxia scare. Watch this explainer on how this came to be: WATCH: PH rising from a year of outbreaks.

3. Duterte continues to rail against TV network ABS-CBN as its franchise is set to expire this March. How did it all start and where do things stand? Find out here: TIMELINE: Duterte against ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal.

4. What’s the big deal with legalizing motorcycle taxis when congestion and mobility in the metro and other big cities are becoming a headache? Read about it in The long road to legalizing motorcycle taxis in the Philippines.

5. Remember the Gem-Ver fishermen who were abandoned by a Chinese vessel? This story is an update on their situation: Chinese company, gov’t officials both aid to Gem-Ver fishermen



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Newsbreak is where you’ll find Rappler’s investigative, in-depth, and data- and research-based reports. Be updated on the latest stories by liking Newsbreak on Facebook and following @newsbreakph on Twitter.

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.