This week on the “Heritage Explains” podcast, Peter Brookes, senior research fellow on weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation in Heritage’s Davis Institute, explains what you need to know about coronavirus.
TIM DOESCHER: From the Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher, and this is Heritage Explains.
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DOESCHER: We've all seen the goofy commercials on TV that feature someone with a pale face in their pajamas, sneezing and coughing into ravaged tissues, looking like they're knocking on heaven's door about to meet their maker. If you've had the flu, you know it's no goof. It is the worst. In fact, I would rather have a month of a cold than one day of the flu.
DOESCHER: Maybe that's why almost every commercial selling a flu remedy is humorous. It's so bad there's nothing left to do but laugh at it. Then again, maybe we can laugh at it because we've developed ways to get through the flu and we know we can make a full recovery. But what if we didn't know how to deal with the flu? Enter coronavirus.
NEWS REPORT 1: We need to be clear. We're basically at a pandemic now.
NEWS REPORT 2: Maybe you've heard about coronavirus. It's a fast-spreading virus that originated in China, and unfortunately it's proving-
NEWS REPORT 3: The coronavirus crisis continues to worsen in China. In the meantime, the death toll-
NEWS REPORT 4: The Chinese whistleblower doctor who told the world about the coronavirus in Wuhan has died.
NEWS REPORT 5: A third case of coronavirus has been identified in the UK. Health officials are-
NEWS REPORT 6: That may be the first indication of what is called community transmission, that is, the virus passing from one person to another, here in Hong Kong.
DOESCHER: While numbers differ, estimates show that nearly 73,000 people have so far been diagnosed with coronavirus, and it's responsible for nearly 2,000 deaths. That's compared to an estimated 42 million who got sick and 61,000 who actually died during last year's flu season in the United States alone. It seems like we're a long way from being as big of a deal as the regular flu, so why is coronavirus dominating the news cycle?
DOESCHER: Everywhere we look, we are seeing headlines and hearing from news outlets about the coronavirus. How serious is the problem? Where did it come from? What do we know, and what do we still need to know? Most of all, can we trust the information we are getting from China?
PETER BROOKES: Well, first of all, they delayed about a month before they even recognized that they had an epidemic. That was a month. Think about how many people could be infected.
DOESCHER: That's our friend Peter Brookes. He's a senior research fellow in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy here at the Heritage Foundation. This week, he explains.
DOESCHER: Now, Peter, I want to start with, I guess, proper terms because this is very scientific. It can be confusing for people who are reading through this. In your paper, you referred to this, I thought it was good, as a medical menace. We hear the term coronavirus. We hear the term flu. We hear the term SARS. We hear the term... all of this stuff thrown around, technical jargon. What is the proper way to talk about this, and how should we refer to it?
BROOKES: It's a virus, to start with, which includes things like the flu, but this is a specific type of virus called the coronavirus. The reason it's called that is because if you were to look at it under a microscope, it has something that looks like a crown on it. That's where it is. And there's a whole family of these. SARS, which was the severe acute respiratory syndrome, of 2002, 2003, which originated in China, is a cousin of the current virus we're dealing with.
BROOKES: In fact, the World Health Organization just came out with a new name for it. Originally, they were calling it novel coronavirus or new coronavirus. In other words, this is a new one. Now they're calling it a variation of SARS, so it's very close. It's a virus, basically in the same family of viruses that we deal with, with the potential repercussions of the flu, such as pneumonia, which can lead to fatalities.
DOESCHER: Yeah, I guess that was my question. I was reading statistics. So many cases of the flu every year pop up in America. It's not common, but it is common. People get the flu. Everybody's had the flu or knows somebody that's had the flu. Is this somehow worse than the flu strands that we have here in America, or is this-
BROOKES: We don't know yet. That's the issue. This is new. Remember, novel coronavirus. In my papers on this, a couple things I've written for Daily Signal and for Heritage, information-
DOESCHER: By the way, we're going to link to all that in the show notes, so everybody log on to get more context that we might miss here.
BROOKES: When you talk about it, you have to keep it in context. This is of great concern. People have lost their lives. We've had, fortunately, as of sitting down today, no fatalities in the United States and only 13 cases, but many, many people, over 1,000, have died in China as of right now, and that will change by the time this broadcasts.
BROOKES: So far this year in the United States, according to the CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 10,000 to 25,000 American deaths from the flu alone. In some years, over the last 10 years in the United States, from influenza or the flu, there have been as many as 79,000, 80,000 deaths in one year. Interestingly, the peak flu season is November to February. It extends beyond that. Of course, and the same thing with the mortality numbers; they can extend beyond that.
BROOKES: But that's pretty intense when you think about it. We're talking about tens of thousands of cases in China. We're talking about over 1,000 deaths. The flu season can have higher mortality rates than that. Now, we don't know where this new virus is going. We have to be prepared. We have to take preventive steps, and the administration has done that.
DOESCHER: I think that's good context that you give there, comparing to the flu that we're used to. Now, I want to move to where this started. Obviously, it started in China. I've heard from, and you've touched on this, it's from people eating bats and cats, all sorts of weird things like that. Is that true? Is that where it's coming from?
BROOKES: I hate to be wonky, but I love this word. This is a zoonotic pathogen, like zoo and notic. What it means is that it's a virus that is passed from animals to humans. Actually, six out of 10 infectious diseases today are zoonotic.
DOESCHER: No kidding.
BROOKES: They come from animals. And a lot of the emerging diseases, about 75% of them, also are zoonotic. This is something most people don't think about, and we don't know the exact origins of this yet. The Chinese are probably investigating it, but of course they're in the middle of a public health crisis, so we don't know.
BROOKES: But the bat carries coronavirus. It doesn't affect its health, but it carries it. Now, if you consume a bat or somehow it is transmitted from a bat to another animal and you consume that animal, you can get it. Now, if you think about it in terms of virology, things like SARS, that was originally believed to come from bats. HIV is also from animals originally. Marburg. There's a bunch of other things, the avian flu, the swine flu. These are things that come from animals.
BROOKES: There's big questions in science, as I understand it, about how these things are transmitted. I'm not saying that animals are dangerous and be worried about the family dog, but the fact of the matter is that this is really the case. When these animals sometimes are put together unexpectedly... You don't see a lot of different species hanging around each other. You see the same species hanging around in flocks or in herds, but you don't necessarily see flocks and herds hanging around together. When they're forced to put together, sometimes there can be transmission from one animal to another in unsanitary conditions, and that can be transmitted to human beings and have a devastating effect.
DOESCHER: What is China's responsibility in spreading this?
BROOKES: Well, they are trying to contain it. There were some mistakes made early on. They covered it up. They did the same thing with the SARS epidemic in 2002, 2003.
DOESCHER: Why? Why cover it up? Why?
BROOKES: My perception is, from the outside, is that it's part of their political system. You have to remember that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to manage its image among its people. They have a social contract where they ask the people to give up the reins of political power in exchange for the Chinese government improving their standard of living. When something like this, since it's all statal, something like this happens, the state is responsible for healthcare, the state also takes the hit for failures.
BROOKES: And people are occasionally afraid to report in the Communist system. This is like Chernobyl and some other things that we've seen. People are afraid to report to their seniors that they have failed, because there was a number of things. These wild game markets, which could be the origins of the coronavirus... It was in 2002, 2003. These were supposed to be shut down. They weren't, clearly. This could cost somebody their job. This was people reporting up the chain of command about this problem. But the problem is when people cover it up, these sort of things can get out of control.
DOESCHER: It sounds like, from what I've read, they are allowing the World Health Organization to come in. They're allowing a little sunshine and transparency on the situation to people outside of China. Can we trust that they are being totally transparent?
BROOKES: No. Well, first of all, they delayed about a month before they even recognized that they had an epidemic. That was a month. Think about how many people could be infected. To their credit, when they did recognize that they had an epidemic going on, they did do the genome sequencing on the coronavirus and released it internationally. But the United States, early on when this became an issue, came out and said, the CDC said, "We're willing to help. Let us come and help." The Chinese said no.
DOESCHER: They said no.
BROOKES: They also said no to the World Health Organization. The World Health Organization is just on the ground; a minimal team is just on the ground recently. They turned down outside assistance. Now, I think part of that was because they were worried what the world would see about the Chinese public health system, about the stories that would come out about the coverup and lack of transparency.
BROOKES: But when you're talking about the interconnected world we live in, I couldn't even give you a number for the number of flights around the world today, but you know what I'm talking about. We all know this, millions and millions of people moving around, certainly out of China, to all continents, I would say, except maybe Antarctica, all points of the world. This is of tremendous concern.
BROOKES: The other thing that's really important is to understand diseases, things like... Once again, I don't want to get too wonky here, but incubation periods, communicability periods. Incubation periods means when do symptoms show up. At what point is somebody able to communicate this disease to somebody else, transmit it to somebody else? That's critically important to know, because if you have people coming through the airports and you're checking their temperature, if they have a fever, that gives you an idea that they may be sick. But maybe they have the virus and they're not yet showing fever or they're asymptomatic, and can they transmit those diseases when they're asymptomatic These are incredibly important questions that need to be answered.
DOESCHER: Taking a step aside from our conversation with Peter, who's going to CPAC this year? I'll tell you what, Michelle and me will be there, and we are looking forward to meeting you in person. If you've got some time, be sure to stop by the Heritage booth in the exhibit hall, or come to Radio Row and hang out at the Daily Signal booth. We'd love to hear from you. We'd love to get your opinions on the show, and you might get some free swag as well. Again, CPAC is next week. If you're going to be there, we look forward to seeing you. If not, we'll look forward to hearing from you online.
DOESCHER: Okay, back to our conversation with Peter.
DOESCHER: You mentioned the World Health Organization. I was reading today in the Wall Street Journal, they said, and this is a quote, China is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response, and the World Health Organization has urged countries not to restrict travel. Why? I know a lot of countries are ignoring that, but why would the World Health Organization say that? It seems contrary to what you're saying.
BROOKES: Well, I don't know. I'm just surmising. What are the possibilities? I personally disagree. I think the Trump administration did the right thing by restricting travel. We fortunately have some Americans who were evacuated, are getting out of quarantine today and tomorrow, and that will continue as they arrive in the United States and have to be quarantined for 14 days. Of course, there are questions once again because the Chinese have not been as transparent as to whether the incubation period is 14 days or 24 days. It's critically important we know this. But CDC and our public health system is terrific. It's resilient. We've had no fatalities here among the 13 cases.
BROOKES: I don't know why the World Health Organization would do that. I certainly don't want them to make public health decisions based on politics. China is a very powerful country. It's a very powerful country, world's second-largest economy, world's most populous country. I want the World Health Organization to do things based on health decisions.
DOESCHER: Peter, I've read a few places online, this isn't all over the place, but it was enough for me to have you clear the air on it, and I know with your experience in national security, I have read that some people are concerned that this could be a blatant attack from someone to release this virus, as we talk about, using this as a weapon potentially. Is there any fear in that, or is there any validity to that? Is this characteristic of China? I don't know.
BROOKES: Well, where this potentially comes from... I haven't read everything that you've read, but there has been some stories out there regarding China's biological weapons program having been working on coronavirus. China has a very strong, enthusiastic biotechnology program in the country. Some of that is being used... There's concerns that some of that is being used for military purposes, such as in a biological warfare sense. One of China's premiere virology labs is in Wuhan.
BROOKES: There's been things said, and I can't... I think the real issue here is now containing the virus, but we do need to get to what happened there. Was this an accidental release? Was an animal that was being tested taken out of the institute? There's all sorts of possibilities that I can't address.
BROOKES: There are concerns about China having an offensive biological weapons program, and let me just say something here. It may not be related to this outbreak. It might be the wild game markets that we talked about before, where animals are sold for consumption and also for traditional Chinese medicinal purposes. Most people are saying this is probably where this came from, because they believe that's where SARS came from a number of years ago.
BROOKES: But there is this institute there. Now, when you talk about biological weapons and biodefense, you are allowed to do research and develop vaccines for defensive purposes, like anthrax shots, smallpox, things along this line, that your military services may face in warfare. There is a Biological Weapons Convention. The United States has gotten rid of its offensive program, but not everybody has. There are concerns about it. There are concerns that China might be involved in things like gene editing, and there have been some stories on the civilian side about this that people can certainly Google or look up on the internet to read about from responsible sources.
BROOKES: There's a possibility that China may not only had been working on things like Ebola for defensive purposes, but you can cross over to using these for offensive military purposes, too, where you would use them on the battlefield. There are concerns about this, and the Chinese, it's not something that's out in the open. I think there's going to be continuing questions about it, but I can't review the validity.
DOESCHER: Yeah, it goes to the transparency. It's a situation that yearns for transparency, and until then, you're going to get these posts on the internet. There's going to be a level of uncertainty and fear. I appreciate you talking a little bit about that.
DOESCHER: Now I want to move to President Trump. He seems very confident when he talks about this. We're confident in China that they're going to get this together, and we're going to be okay here in America. That's his posture right now. How would you rate the U.S.'s response to this right now?
BROOKES: I think it's been terrific, and I think the numbers bear that out. But because we don't know everything, I think the CDC is right to be concerned. The president was right to limit travel. Some people weren't happy about that, but I think you have to... The first thing you need to do in responding here is contain the virus, so that's our effort to contain it.
BROOKES: Now, we're at 13 cases. Gosh, we're at least a month in since we really became aware of this. That's good. We have not had any fatalities in the United States, thankfully, so far. But something could change that, and so we have to be prepared. I think the CDC is doing what it needs to do along with... The Health and Human Services, where the CDC agency falls under, is the lead agency, not the Department of Defense, and then followed by Department of Homeland Security.
BROOKES: I think the president was right to set up a corona task force. But one of the things I suggested in one of my papers that I think is critically important, and it may be being done, because we don't necessarily talk about these issues, but we may need to use intelligence resources to figure out what's really going on in China, because we can't rely on them telling us.
DOESCHER: Peter, this is a big issue. Thank you for tracking it, and thank you for explaining it to us. We'll hopefully keep you in the loop here and that you'll keep us in the loop. Thank you.
BROOKES: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
DOESCHER: That's it for another episode of Heritage Explains. Thank you so much for listening. I've linked to Peter's work in the show notes, so please log on and check them out if you want to learn more. Also, a special shout-out to everyone who has answered the call and left us a comment and rated us five stars on iTunes or wherever you listen to your episode. The good news is we know there's a lot more of you out there who have yet to do it, so please log on and do your part. Michelle is up next week.