COVID19 and the Lessons We Learned from Prior Pandemics

With recent criticisms in the media, both foreign and domestic, on the United States’ response to COVID19 as well as accusations and summary conclusions that the United States is not a global health power house nor is it as prepared to handle COVID19 as nations around the world that are plagued by infectious challenges daily, it is important to revisit history of recent pandemics and the prior US responses to them to put the current interpretations of “failing” into perspective.

In 2003, the SARS epidemic began in China with the first possible case documented in November 2002. At the time, US relations with China were such that CDC field offices and CDC field officers, including permanent deploys and temporary lead deploys from central CDC in Atlanta, GA, were available to assist the Chinese healthcare system and government with the response to SARS. Through this effort, statements from CDC field directors such as, “This town is going to have a spike and we need 300 more beds,” was answered by the Chinese with a new hospital being built with 300 beds in less than 3 days. Such transparency, collaboration, and communication were possible at the time but relationships have diminished in recent years. During the SARS outbreak, there were 8,098 patients infected (known by positive testing) and 774 deaths (9.5%) which affected 26 countries including the US; however, the US only had 8 to 27 cases (depending on source) and no deaths. Although the first cases traced back to late 2002, the disease was not sequenced and declared until April 2003, but testing was available shortly thereafter. Control measures locally and globally with some help from testing stifled the pandemic in a matter of weeks and the threat was near zero by the end of 2003. No resurgence has occurred. From this outbreak, the US and the world learned how to deal with novel coronaviruses and how to coordinate and collaborate for future potential outbreaks. Such lessons include the need for transparent communication and direct in country collaboration, rapid move to testing distribution, and high-level knowledge of pandemics and who nations should respond.

In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic began. The CDC activated its emergency system within 7 days of the first case, the US and the WHO declared the pandemic within 9 days of the first case, and testing was available within 14 days of the first case. The US had 60.8 million cases (confirmed positive tests) with 274,000 hospitalizations (0.5%) and 12,469 deaths (4.5% of hospitalizations, 0.02% of cases). The incidence from the disease was due to the rapid respiratory spread very similar to routine influenza but on top of a system (including hospital processes and national approaches to testing with integrated public health laboratory systems) that was prepared and able to nimbly adapt. In this case the rapid advent of testing was crucial to controlling case, getting patients on treatment, and tracking the disease. H1N1 was then subsequently included in the annual influenza vaccines.

From 2012-2014, the MERS-CoV virus, originating from and primarily endemic in the Arabian Peninsula, was a challenge for global heatlh because of the high mortality rate (30 to 40%) and the very efficient spread of the virus. All cases arising outside of the Arabian Peninsula were traced to travelers from that region. The first known cases were in April 2012 with the first recognition of the virus causing the disease in September 2012. The CDC developed a test for MERS in 2012 and subsequently an EUA from FDA was granted on June 5, 2013. The first positive cases of MERS in the US occurred in May 2014, almost 1 year after testing had been available. To date, only 2 confirmed cases of MERS have been diagnosed in the US which were traveling healthcare workers who had treated patients in Saudi Arabia.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014-2016 had a total global case count of 27,000+ with 11,000+ deaths (46% mortality). However, in the US only 4 patients were ever diagnosed with EBOLA and 11 patients were treated for EBOLA with only 2 total deaths (18% mortality). Why was the case count so low for the US and why was the mortality nearly a 1/3rd of the overall epidemic? Immediate response from the US government to control incoming patients (the only transmission inside the US was from patients who were travelers to healthcare workers) and availability of testing prior to the outbreak (with the CDC). Nigeria was able to diagnose the first case in Lagos (a traveler from Liberia) because a scientist in Nigeria had developed a rapid EBOLA PCR six months before the outbreak occurred. Nigeria only had 8 deaths from 20 confirmed infections (40% mortality). Why did Nigeria get ahead of the game? Immediate response from government and availability of testing. The unfortunate results in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were less about lack of response and lack of testing and mostly due to poor infrastructure for health.

The current pandemic of COVID19 started on November 17th (earliest confirmed case in China) and was a reported disease cluster from China to WHO by December 31st, 2019. The first case in the US was documented to have occurred on January 19, 2020. The FDA, in response to information from central administration and pressure from multiple entities, allowed testing for COVID19 through Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) on February 28, 2020 (more than one month after the first US case). As of April 28, 2020, the US has had 1,026,771 confirmed cases (positive testing) and 58,269 deaths (5.7% mortality) affecting all 50 states in the setting of an unprepared system (i.e., insufficient testing, insufficient pandemic planning at the national level, insufficient in country data from source countries). Data has shown in the laboratory that the SARS-CoV-2 virus shares 74 to 90% genetic homology with the original SARS virus but has a 10-fold increased affinity for binding which suggests that its natural biological virulence could be 10x that of SARS. If proper systems, testing, and planning had been in place, we can conservatively estimate that there would currently be 102,667 confirmed cases in the US and 5,827 deaths. These excess cases and excess death are, therefore, a direct result of the lack of systems, testing, and planning (52,442 excess deaths of US citizens).

There are conspiracy theorists that argue SARS-CoV-2 was created or modified from a different virus by human manipulation with a most recent endorsement of HIV Nobel Prize Laureate Luc Montagnier—statements that were almost immediately refuted by other prominent scientists. If there was a credible threat from SARS-CoV-2 when the sequence was released, that would have been an even more convincing argument that preparation was needed. But the threat of SARS-CoV-2 from just the observed medical cases and initial reports should have warranted a brisk and complete response from leadership. That such responses were delayed because of a multitude of failed responses (pandemic planning, testing, situational awareness, field deployments, etc.) can be argued from now until the next pandemic occurs. But our collective prior experience with pandemics (4 of them in 2 decades) provided plenty of evidence and case-studies for how we should have responded.

ASCP along with other organizations reached out to our membership and the community for support of a call for a National Testing Strategy resulting in tens of thousands of letters to elected representatives and a subsequent plan for a National Testing Strategy released by the US government. The CARES Act released this week includes billions for testing.

These efforts are for our membership who are the medical laboratory professionals working 12 hours shifts to provide the testing needed by their patient populations.

These efforts are for our pathologist members who are informing and controlling hospital and government responses around testing through their rapid decisions and their expertise.

These efforts are for our pathologist’s assistance at all levels who keep anatomic pathology running with our pathology trainees despite massive volume challenges.

These efforts are for our PhD members whose expertise in science, design, and evidence acquisition is rapidly leading to new testing and eventually new vaccines.

These efforts are, most importantly, for our patients, the center of all that we do, to ensure that they have access to testing and the peace of mind they need to move forward from this pandemic.



-Dan Milner, MD, MSc, spent 10 years at Harvard where he taught pathology, microbiology, and infectious disease. He began working in Africa in 1997 as a medical student and has built an international reputation as an expert in cerebral malaria. In his current role as Chief Medical officer of ASCP, he leads all PEPFAR activities as well as the Partners for Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment in Africa Initiative.

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