Did we learn nothing from the Ebola virus?

Earlier today, Karen wrote about the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. Or at least it was just in China at one point. Now it’s spread to several neighboring regions. The New York Post reports that the initially reported death toll has doubled in a matter of days, though that’s largely due to the fact that doctors now know what they’re looking for and are probably catching up on previously misidentified cases.

One fact from Karen’s article that really caught my eye (and not in a good way) was picked up yesterday at CNN. This is no longer a problem that’s “somebody else’s problem” on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The first reported case in America has already shown up in Washington State.

The United States has its first confirmed case of a new virus that appeared in Wuhan, China, last month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday. The coronavirus has already sickened hundreds and killed six people in Asia.

CDC officials said the United States will be more strict about health screenings of airplane passengers arriving from Wuhan.

The unnamed patient arrived here from China on January 15 and didn’t even seek treatment until January 19. He likely contracted it before flying out, obviously, so that means that there’s a minimum of at least five days that a person can be infected before displaying obvious symptoms. That’s a lot of time to interact with people, including everyone else on the plane.

The CDC is saying that they will be “more strict” in terms of health screenings at airports, but is that really enough? Posing the question I placed in the title, did we learn nothing from the Ebola outbreak a few years back?

This is a virus we’re talking about, and viruses have a tendency to mutate and evolve, sometimes quite rapidly. How they change is something of a grab bag as far as I know, and thus far the effects of this one aren’t extremely lethal in most cases. At least not yet. But history has taught us that our luck might not last that long. It’s going to take at least a year for a vaccine to be developed and made ready for wide distribution. A lot can happen in that time.

We tend to forget just how bad these pandemics can be. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people around the world. (More than 1% of the planet’s population.) In New York City people were literally falling down dead in the streets. Sooner or later our luck is going to run out and another virus will evolve into something of that magnitude, similar to Captain Trips from Stephen King’s novel, The Stand, and we can’t say with 100% certainty that this new coronavirus isn’t the one.

With that in mind, the CDC should be doing more than simply being “more strict about airport screenings.” We can and should institute a travel ban from infected areas immediately while offering the option for people to undergo a quarantine period and testing before they emerge into the general population. The problem is, we always have people who don’t want to cooperate with such policies. You’ll recall when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey tried to quarantine a woman with Ebola. She took him to court.

Honestly, if we can’t do a better job of warding off a potential pandemic than this we probably deserve to go extinct at some point. We were given enough warning this time to close the doors while we work on a vaccine and determine just how bad this is and how quickly it’s spreading. But so far we don’t seem to be doing it.