The number of confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus continues to rise around the world, with the Philippines and India only the latest countries to confirm the spread of the infection.
With the number of cases of the Wuhan virus at almost 8,000 worldwide, and over 170 deaths, the outbreak is on pace to overtake the 2003 SARS epidemic within hours. The number of confirmed cases in China is already greater than during SARS, which infected 5,327 people in the country and killed 349.
Worldwide, 8,098 cases of SARS were confirmed in 2003, with 774 deaths, a fatality rate of 9.6%. Thankfully, the Wuhan virus does not appear to be anywhere near as deadly, but the greater levels of infection, which experts don't expect to peak for weeks if not months, could see the death toll creep up to SARS levels as well.
Researchers at Imperial College London who have modeled the spread of the Wuhan virus based on available data from the first month of the outbreak have given a low estimate of 20,000 infections in China alone by the end of the month, with high estimates of over 100,000. With a fatality rate of around 2%, which experts agree appears to be the current level for the virus, that would translate to between 400 and 2,000 deaths.
SARS was a key test of the Chinese government at the time, and officials were widely blamed for failing to address the outbreak in time, censoring news of its spread and downplaying the severity. Several officials were sacked in the wake of the epidemic and China even publicly apologized to the World Health Organization.
While Beijing's reaction was infinitely faster this time, it was hampered by what appears to have been poor crisis handling at the local level, perhaps even a deliberate coverup. Failure to protect the country from another devastating disease outbreak -- combined with what is likely to be severe economic pain from the ongoing transport shutdowns and quarantines -- could blow back on Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has taken personal control of the response.
Wuhan is also a lesson to the world of what scientists have been warning about for decades. We are overdue a deadly pandemic and yet few governments are sufficiently prepared -- even Hong Kong, which learned the lessons of SARS the hard way, has run out of face masks and dithered for days over whether to shut its border. The Wuhan virus is not as deadly as SARS, and nowhere near as deadly as a true pandemic like the Spanish Flu, and yet may end up killing more people than the former.
In an increasingly connected, global world, a delay of days in tackling a disease can have major ramifications, as Wuhan shows.