Jan 29, 2020 - Science

The new age of global pandemic risk

In this image, a line of people wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus stand in line.
Travellers wear protective masks at Hong Kong High Speed Rail Station on Jan. 29. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The collision of urbanization, population growth and the rapid movement of people and goods across borders is heightening global pandemic risk.

Why it matters: Aside from the tragic human cost, outbreaks such as the coronavirus, and the fear that accompanies them, are threatening to roil geopolitics and the global economy.

What's happening: A number of factors are exacerbating risk.

  • "Travel times have rapidly decreased," says Amesh Adalja, a doctor and emerging infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "Viruses can now spread at the speed of a jet rather than a steam-liner."
  • On top of that, growing populations and movement to cities are forming mega-metros — like Wuhan, China — where masses of people in close quarters make it easier for diseases to spread, he says.

At the same time, advancements in medicine are making us more resilient to new diseases.

  • We have more sophisticated hospital equipment, better antibiotics and antivirals.
  • China "has been fairly open in sharing genetic sequences," Tom Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters on a call Wednesday. "That allowed for the development for a diagnostic. And the vaccine side is underway."

"The hysteria associated with an outbreak like this probably could cause more damage than the virus itself," Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters.

The hysteria around the outbreak could even accelerate the ongoing "decoupling" of the U.S. and China, as American companies ponder moving their factories and supply chains out of the country to hedge against the risk of the pandemic.

The bottom line: It's crucial for health officials around the world to be as transparent as possible when dealing with such an outbreak, but the coronavirus cases come as tensions between Washington and Beijing are peaking.

  • China, though quick on some information sharing, has been reluctant to share other types of crucial data about the virus, U.S. health officials say. Advisers to the CDC told CNN they're lacking basic information about who's getting infected with the disease and how it's spreading.
  • "The main thing is to maintain trust and self-reporting. ... These are the kinds of things that snuff out outbreaks," says Bollyky. "It does seem like, in the early days of this, it was not gotten right."

Be smart: While this new strain of coronavirus has killed 132 people so far, this flu season took 8,200 lives in the U.S. alone, reports Axios' Bob Herman.

Go deeper: What's happening with the coronavirus

Go deeper