Coronavirus Outbreak Resembles SARS, But Virus Experts Say Science Moves Far Faster Now

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Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China on Jan. 22. (Dake Kang/AP)
Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China on Jan. 22. (Dake Kang/AP)

Dr. Paul Sax remembers SARS all too well, and the similarities with the new coronavirus that has now killed more than 130 people are obvious: Both are coronaviruses first found in China. Both seem to have originated in bats. Both cause severe lung infections and worldwide alarm.

But Sax, the clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital, says this outbreak also strikes him as very different.

"What's different is the pace of scientific discovery," he says. "It's like someone pressed the fast-forward button, and we're accelerating through things that took much, much longer then."

Case in point: With the latest DNA technology, the full genetic makeup of the new coronavirus was immediately analyzed and shared in a public database.

"That happened within a couple of weeks — actually less than two weeks," Sax notes.

When you know the DNA sequence of a virus, you can develop a diagnostic test for it. And that "is exactly what happened, as soon as the sequence came out," says Mohsan Saeed, a virologist at Boston University's National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories.

A diagnostic test is a critical tool in an outbreak, he says.

"Whenever there's a suspicion of a case, whenever you think there's a patient, you can immediately take their sample and do a diagnostic assay and identify them very quickly," Saeed explains. "And once you identify them, then you can just take the public health measures that can help curb the spread of the virus."

Saeed also gives credit to dramatic advances in Chinese science in recent years, including more research published in top international journals.

"That also contributed to the information that we are aware of at this point coming out very quickly," he says.

Dr. Sax from Brigham and Women's says the flow of information among scientists has become quicker in general, from Twitter to web sites that share research papers before they are published. Chinese scientists are now part of that flow.

"Investigators in China were able to cultivate the virus and have pictures of it that were published in the New England Journal of Medicine very rapidly, all within a month of the initial reports," he says.

They've also shared medical details of how the virus affects patients, Sax says.

Work is already under way to test anti-viral therapies and to develop vaccines. U.S. officials say vaccine testing could begin within three months.

"These things are happening at a pace that really is remarkable," Sax says, "and demonstrated incredible cooperation between scientists globally."

Even at this rapid pace, though, a vaccine would take many more months to be proven safe and effective, so public health efforts will need to keep focusing on containing the outbreak.

The virus appears to be spreading quickly from Wuhan, where it is believed to have originated, to other parts of China, and the latest count includes nearly 6,000 cases in and around China. Dozens of cases have also been identified in other countries, including several in the U.S.

This segment aired on January 29, 2020.


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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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