There are numerous questions raised by the appearance of the 2019-nCOR virus (“2019-nCoV”), but the main question could actually be: Why is it that everybody is so nervous? Well, there are several reasons. However, you could also ask, why are we not that alarmed when it comes to the flu? Or would it be better asked the other way around: Have virologists learned their lesson from the negligent handling of influenza?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), various strains of the flu virus kill between 291,000 and 646,000 people globally each year. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, known as the “Spanish Flu,” killed more people than World War I. It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in the four years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague (1347-1351). Compared to that, the impact of past coronaviruses like SARS and MERS appears to be negligible. That said, approximately 35% of reported patients with MERS-CoV infection in 2012 have died, dwarfing the roughly 2.1% (so far) of those patients infected with the 2019-nCoV.

There is a reason why health authorities become nervous about the outbreak of a novel virus, especially when there is little knowledge about its characteristics.

“Vaccination remains the single most effective measure for preventing influenza infection and the development of severe diseases among the frail and vulnerable,” says Richard Pebody, Team Leader of High Threat Pathogens Infectious Hazard Management at the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Europe.

The annual flu wave comes as regularly as Christmas Eve. However, it is hard to predict which virus types will dominate each season and how severe the current pathogen actually is. Influenza vaccines are most effective when the antigens in the vaccine match those of circulating strains. Due to the fact that the WHO gives an order to vaccine producers before the start of a season, antigens contained in the prepared vaccines often show a mismatch.

Since the occurrence of coronaviruses is less regular, targeted protection appears hardly thinkable. On the other hand, isolating influenza-infected people seems impossible in the face of such numbers. That is not the case for the coronavirus yet, so it could actually make a lot of sense right here.

Furthermore, there is an endless need for progress when it comes to prevention, treatment, and management of epidemic diseases. It will pay off since the opportunity costs – the price of nonaction – are immense. The economic impact of the outbreak is not to be underestimated, given that the virus might strangle the Chinese economy, triggering some global contagion.

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