The Observer view on coronavirus

Observer editorial
Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

The news that coronavirus Covid-19, which has spread across much of China over the past two months, has now claimed its first life in Europe might be seen as an alarming development.

Until now, deaths from respiratory illnesses that have been triggered by the virus have been confined to the Far East; more than 1,500 deaths have occurred in China plus three others in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan. Now the virus has killed someone much nearer to home, in France, suggesting that a new centre for the disease might be establishing itself in Europe.

We should take care in making such an interpretation, however. The European victim turns out to be an 80-year-old tourist from China’s Hubei province, the disease’s centre, who arrived in France on 16 January and has been kept in quarantine in a Paris hospital since 25 January. He presumably carried the virus on his journey to Europe and as an octogenarian was particularly vulnerable.

This does not mean we should be complacent about the likely impact of Covid-19, however. There are no treatments or vaccines for this virus and, crucially, no pre-existing immunity in the population. During the 2009-10 flu pandemic, many older people were protected because they had already been exposed to the virus strain involved. This will not occur if Covid-19 spreads across Europe and the UK. The elderly are likely to be particularly at risk.

In fact, there are so many huge unknowns about this outbreak that it is still impossible to work out how it will progress. For example, we don’t know just how infectious people are before they show symptoms of the disease. A low infection rate suggests death tolls will be modest. A higher one will mean that fatalities could be significant. Careful monitoring of the disease is therefore going to be crucial over the next few months. To date, the National Health Service has responded well. However, it remains to be seen how it will perform when tens of thousands of people gather at hospitals seeking tests for the condition and wards fill up with those found to be infected.

Such uncertainty should not be seen as an excuse for inaction, however. As we make clear in our Focus investigation of the coronavirus crisis, urgent measures now need to be taken to head off future pandemics that could catch us off-guard in future, a point that has been highlighted by the billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. “Given the continual emergence of new pathogens… and the ever-increasing connectedness of our world, there is a significant probability that a large and lethal modern-day pandemic will occur in our lifetime,” he warned some time ago.

Certainly, it is no accident that the most worrying recent pandemics to afflict the planet have emerged from Asia and Africa, in poor countries that have inadequate health services and which are limited in their ability to monitor and isolate cases of newly emerging diseases. Hospitals, medical laboratories and research centres there need bolstering, rapidly, and should now be the focus of major investment by the west. The World Health Organization has done much in this area but it is clear more needs to be achieved, for it appears that the world still does not fully appreciate that outbreaks of deadly new diseases – wherever they emerge – are not someone else’s problem. They will inevitably impinge on lives across the planet.

As Professor Trudie Lang, of Oxford University, has put it: “This is not going to be the last outbreak of a previously unknown disease. We have to seize the moment.”