Virus death toll in China rises to 56 with about 2,000 cases (copy)

Shoppers wearing face masks wait to pay for their groceries at a supermarket in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province last week. Wuhan has been identified as the nexus of the coronavirus that has since spread widely. (Chinatopix via AP)

The fast-spreading and at times deadly coronavirus has exposed modern society’s vulnerability to emerging communicable diseases.

At latest report, the virus has killed 132 people and infected more than 6,000 on mainland China and abroad.

Despite efforts to isolate it, cases have been reported in France, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada, Sri Lanka and the United States.

The virus is similar to earlier challenges to the world health system, SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in 2003.

Like SARS and annual influenza infections, coronavirus sprung from a crowded southeastern Asian city. Chinese officials have tried to isolate Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, whose open-air food markets are suspected to be the nexus of the viral jump from the animal world to humans. Yet, The Washington Post reports that some 5 million people have left the area before the quarantine could take effect.

Time after time, it seems, viruses, one of the simplest forms of life, have proven wilier than our ability to contain them. In a world where commerce and people circle the globe constantly, we are easy prey to the deadly potential combination of viral lethality, communicability and resistance to existing immunity.

There are steps we can take to protect ourselves.

In recent op/ed columns in The Washington Post and the website of CNBC, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has called for faster sharing of information among international microbe hunters and faster sharing of testing methods and equipment within the United States.

In a remarkable response to the emergency, China announced it would build a 1,300-bed hospital in Wuhan in six days. That’s an epic response to the crisis. Is it too much to expect the fast-growing nation to be equally aggressive in the cause of prevention? Is it too much to expect China to address the sanitation issues that allow diseases to breed, jump species and spread?

Modern transportation has made this a very small world indeed. If it is going to be a healthy one, all of us must begin to think proactively about the way we live and plan for the next challenge, because we know it will be coming. That challenge could determine whether we’re smarter than a virus.

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