World

Financial markets have suffered heavy falls and major events have been cancelled in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, while scientists continue the search for a vaccine. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Global response to COVID-19

A Venice Carnival reveller wears an extra face mask prior to the final two days of the carnival being cancelled.
Credit: Reuters / Manuel Silvestri

COVID-19: THE SPREAD

This week, it became clear the coronavirus disease COVID-19 is a global problem, as the outbreak spread across continents with quickening speed and without any discernible pattern.

Afghanistan reported its first case this week, as did Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman. South Korea, Italy and Japan have all recorded increases in the number of cases.

On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the world should prepare for a coronavirus pandemic, which would be the first such global outbreak since the spread of H1N1, or swine flu, in 2009. But, unlike China, which swiftly imposed mass lockdowns, many countries may find it difficult to impose and enforce effective containment measures.

In a sign of the difficulty of preventing the virus from crossing international borders, Italy has been hit by the worst outbreak outside China and South Korea, even though it was one of the first countries to declare a state of emergency and ban flights to and from China. As of Thursday 322 cases had been recorded in Italy and 11 people had died. The outbreak was centred in the north, where 12 towns have been quarantined. Schools and most shops have been closed and about 50,000 residents told to stay home. Large cities such as Venice and Milan also took precautions, including cancelling soccer games, ending the Carnival in Venice ahead of schedule and shutting Milan’s La Scala opera house.

In South Korea, which has had 1261 cases and 12 deaths, infections have been detected in all major cities. Most have been linked to a branch of the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu although it is not clear how the virus first spread to the congregation. The church’s services have been suspended. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, has put the country on high alert, allowing authorities to quarantine cities if required.

Iran has reported 19 deaths, more than any country outside China. But experts fear the outbreak is worse than officials have claimed. Authorities say there have been 139 cases, but this is not consistent with the number of deaths. According to the WHO, the virus kills about 2 per cent of those infected.

As the outbreak accelerated globally, it has significantly slowed in China. The WHO believes the epidemic peaked there from January 23 to February 2. About 700 new cases a day were reported in China this week, compared with more than 3000 a day in early February. As of Thursday, more than 2700 Chinese people had died and about 80,000 cases had been recorded. More than 50 million people in China remain under lockdown.

THE FALLOUT

The virus has brought a sudden halt to the world’s flow of people, and is affecting the global economy and, in some countries, domestic politics.

Australia this week raised its travel advice for South Korea and Japan and said people should reconsider travel to the South Korean city of Daegu and Cheongdo county. At least six countries have gone further and imposed bans on all visitors from South Korea. Some have imposed bans on Japan, Singapore and other affected countries.

Meanwhile, airlines around the world have suspended flights to China and some have also limited flights to Italy, Iran and South Korea. These measures have been inconsistent and regularly change, adding an element of unpredictability to international travel.

This week, financial markets began to react to the outbreak. On Monday, the United States sharemarket had its largest one-day fall since 2018. The Italian market fell 6 per cent. From Monday to Wednesday, Australia’s sharemarket dropped about 10 per cent. The falls reflected a somewhat belated realisation that the virus is spreading and that China, the world’s second-largest economy, is at a standstill with many businesses and factories remaining closed. Consumers are staying home. Production and exports have plummeted, leaving foreign firms, especially technology companies, with shortages of parts.

The virus could also lead to the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, due to begin on July 24. The International Olympic Committee and WHO are in daily contact. A committee member, Dick Pound, said this week that postponing the Olympics may not be logistically feasible and the Games were likely to be cancelled if they cannot proceed in July.

The virus has led to spates of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism around the world. It has led to fake news and conspiracy theories, often targeting Chinese communities. It has also affected internal politics of affected countries.

China has postponed its National People’s Congress, the annual meeting of parliament, which was due to begin on March 5. Iran’s outbreak may have added to its record-low voter turnout of 43 per cent at last week’s parliamentary elections. Far-right politicians in Europe have been calling for border checks and closures.

THE VACCINE 

The declaration of a pandemic is expected to prompt countries to ease their travel bans and focus on local measures, such as equipping hospitals and preparing for potential closures of workplaces and schools. Almost all public health experts agree that the virus cannot be contained, and that a pandemic will be declared.

A WHO delegation that visited China reported this week that the fatality rate was 2 to 4 per cent in the city of Wuhan and 0.7 per cent elsewhere in the country. Some experts believe the death rate is lower – about 0.3 per cent – because many infected people may recover without going to hospital. Still, little is known about how the virus spreads, or its infection rate.

Researchers are urgently trying to develop a vaccine based on a genetic sequence released by China in January. But health experts say it will take 12 to 18 months to develop an approved, clinically tested vaccine.

In the US, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and biotechnology firm Moderna have developed a vaccine that will be tested on 20 to 25 volunteers in April. Researchers at the University of Queensland are due to test a vaccine on animals and could begin human trials later this year.

The search for a vaccine is likely to be one of the most accelerated such processes in medical history. Artificial intelligence is being used to try to hasten the discovery of a vaccine or to assess the use of existing drugs, which could be approved and tested quicker than new vaccines.

Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist, told The Atlantic this week he believed about 40 to 70 per cent of the world’s population will be infected with the virus within the next year. But, he noted, many will have a mild version and will not need medical care. And many others will have no symptoms at all.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 29, 2020 as "Pin being pulled on illustrious events".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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