THE world dodged a bullet in 2003 when a global effort contained the SARS coronavirus, after it jumped from bats to humans in China and then spread to 26 countries. We nearly had another close call when MERS, another bat coronavirus, spilled over into people in 2012.
A year later, Chinese scientists found SARS-like viruses in fruit bats that could infect human cells And in 2016, the World Health Organization put coronaviruses among the top eight known viral threats requiring more research.
So you would think we would have some coronavirus drugs and vaccines by now. But there are none licensed. That is why we are hurriedly testing drugs designed for other viruses to see if they can help, and running expedited trials for experimental vaccines. Why were we so unprepared for a threat we knew about?
After 2003, there was a burst of research, but it was short-lived. “From 2005, it became really difficult to get funding for work on SARS coronavirus,” says Rolf Hilgenfeld at the University of Lübeck, Germany.
This was partly because, when SARS disappeared, there was no obvious market waiting for drugs or vaccines to treat it, says David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Only big drug companies have the money and expertise to get drugs or vaccines through human trials, and without a market they can’t invest. But Hilgenfeld says agencies that fund research also lost interest, because “prominent virologists believed that SARS coronavirus was a one-time only thing”.
Compared with other coronaviruses, SARS had an extensive genetic mutation that prompted some virologists to guess that this was what allowed it to suddenly spread in humans – and that such a mutation was unlikely to happen again. They were right about the second part. The covid-19 virus doesn’t have this mutation, but it spreads even better in humans than SARS did.
SARS did inspire some global measures. MERS was rapidly identified in 2012 because the European Union had started funding labs to sequence mystery respiratory viruses. In 2007, a revamped version of the International Health Regulations, a treaty designed to reduce the spread of diseases internationally, required advanced economies to help developing ones improve their capabilities for detecting and controlling disease. But nations mostly invested in global initiatives and “not enough in helping countries take care of themselves”, says Heymann. No countries now meet the requirements of the 2007 treaty.
Another problem is getting people other than doctors and scientists on board. After SARS, China set up a network to spot mystery clusters of respiratory disease. It spotted covid-19 in Wuhan – whereupon local officials stifled efforts to raise the alarm.
Public health experts have warned for years that we need to do better. The next new disease might be worse and, unlike covid-19, totally unexpected.