July 28, 2021

Commentary: China’s Wuhan pneumonia outbreak stirs debate over costly virus hunting

3 min read

LONDON: The world is already grappling with its first emerging disease of the decade. Dozens of people in Wuhan, a city in central China, have been hit by an unexplained pneumonia.

There are no recorded deaths but, among 59 who have fallen sick, seven are reported to be in a critical condition with breathing difficulties. The authorities have ruled out seasonal flu, bird flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Singapore and Hong Kong are now screening air passengers for fever.

READ: China pneumonia outbreak may be linked to new type of virus: WHO

READ: MOH monitoring China pneumonia outbreak, will implement temperature screening at Changi Airport

The outbreak, which began in December, has been traced back to a market selling seafood and live animals such as bats and marmots. It has since been closed and disinfected.

The possibility that yet another malign microorganism has hurdled the species barrier to infect humans is likely to boost calls for a global catalogue of animal pathogens.


Experts are divided over whether one such proposal, the Global Virome Project, dedicated to viruses, merits its US$3 billion price tag.

Prof Leo Poon, a virologist at Hong Kong University who helped to sequence the SARS virus in 2003, is watching events keenly. With no deaths, no hospital outbreaks and a market clean-up, he told me, the situation is encouraging.

lab test vials
(Photo: Unsplash/Chromatograph)

But the possibility of human-to-human transmission remains a concern.

 “If it does pass between humans, then people in Wuhan can take the disease anywhere,” he said. “We don’t know the incubation period – it could be days or weeks. If more cases turn up in the next few days, this would be bad news.”

The Lunar New Year looms; millions will travel for the Jan 25 holiday.

As to the pathogen itself, he speculates that it is a virus (China has not yet released any details). The next steps would be sequencing the viral genome, developing a diagnostic test and identifying the host species.

READ: Commentary: Our misuse, overuse of antibiotics comes with a huge cost

Some of the most virulent diseases of recent years have crossed from animals into humans. So-called zoonoses include SARS, traced back to civet cats in 2003; MERS, from camels; and Ebola, found in bats.

While these viruses seldom trouble their animal hosts, they proved deadly in humans. The 260 or so viruses known to infect people are dwarfed by the estimated 1.6 million harboured by mammals and waterfowl.

China pneumonia
The outbreak of pneumonia comes just a few weeks before China’s busiest travel season of the year. (Photo: AFP/PETER PARKS)

That extensive viral pool, plus a lack of knowledge about which pathogens might spill over, has prompted the talk of a Global Virome Project, first proposed in 2016. The decade-long international effort would document animal viruses across the world.

The US Agency for International Development has funded similar work at a smaller scale, uncovering SARS-like viruses among more than 1,000 novel pathogens.


The Global Virome Project’s upper cost estimate of US$3.4 billion is eye-watering but perhaps a wise investment given the toll of epidemics it is designed to head off. The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa topped US$50 billion in economic, health and social costs.

Prof Poon is enthusiastic, suggesting the project would help to prioritise pathogens and could bring unanticipated benefits.

READ: Commentary: Vaccinations, not antibiotics, should be modern medicine’s priority against superbugs

Michael Osterholm, who directs the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, complains it will uncover information that nobody can practically use and distract from existing challenges:

The viral hunter mindset sounds exciting, like something from a movie. There’s an outbreak, you get a helicopter in, take blood and turn up the next day with a vaccine. But that’s science fiction . . . We already have viruses like MERS, SARS, Zika and Nipah that we don’t have countermeasures for.

It is a pragmatic assessment: Humanity lacks weapons for the threats it already faces, perils exacerbated by global traffic and climate change. 

Meanwhile, to the east, in central China, another foe rises.