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Explained: The new SARS-like virus and China’s biological warfare


New Delhi, Jan 23: A new Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome(SARS)-like virus has killed 17 people in China, infected hundreds and reached as far as the United States, with fears mounting about its spread as hundreds of millions travel for Lunar New Year celebrations, which will start from Friday.

Many countries have stepped up screening of passengers from Wuhan, the Chinese city identified as the epicentre. As per the latest reports, the virus has travelled to Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the US.

Explained: The new SARS-like virus and China’s biological warfare

While the scientists are yet to find how the virus jumped from animals to humans, initial investigations point to the sale of live animals at the seafood market in Wuhan.

Comparisons of the new virus have understandably been made with 2003's SARS outbreak:

The virus is entirely new as the pathogen appears to be a never-before-seen strain of coronavirus -- a large family of viruses that can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to SARS, which killed 349 people in mainland China and another 299 in Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003.

It can be recalled that the virus of atypical pneumonia, better known as SARS, had severely disrupted the economies of Asian countries.

Explained: What is Coronavirus?Explained: What is Coronavirus?

SARS had caused a large demand shock in East Asia, particularly to the consumption of services, especially travel.

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    Tourism revenue

    In 2003, the country saw a fall of foreign tourism revenue as much as 60 per cent. While countries like Singapore and South Korea witnessed 40 per cent falls and Thailand and Malaysia saw a drop of more than a third.

    At the peak of the outbreak, thousands of regional flights were cancelled due to a lack of demand. The public transport network saw daily ridership drop by half during the same period.

    Economists have also estimated that SARS was responsible for a 1-2 per cent dent in China's economic growth, and 0.5 per cent across Southeast Asia in 2013.

    During the nine-month outbreak, there were more than 8,000 cases of SARS were confirmed and 775 people died.

    It should be noted that the SARS outbreak in 2003 was linked to the animal market in China and the H7N9, which spread in China in 2013, was linked to a market of live birds.

    However, the China government did not inform the World Health Organization of the outbreak until February 2003. It was even reported that doctors in Beijing were advised to hide SARS patients from the WHO official who would come for the inspection. An initial cover-up of the epidemic had also led to the sacking of Beijing's mayor and the health minister, and also scores of conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.

    The tight-lipped response from the Chinese government on the outbreak was termed as both political and economic move which means that they wanted to reduce public panic and keep the status quo within the country.

    Biological warfare:

    The Reuters reported that the Taiwan legislators even accused China of unleashing the SARS-like virus as part of a biological warfare campaign, though no conclusive evidence has been found. China finally apologized in 2003 for its slow reporting. IT should be noted that Biological warfare agents may be more potent than conventional and chemical weapons.

    Early usage:

    Infectious diseases were recognized for their potential impact on people and armies as early as 600 bc. The crude use of filth and cadavers, animal carcasses, and contagion had devastating effects and weakened the enemy. Polluting wells and other sources of water of the opposing army was a common strategy that continued to be used through the many European wars, during the American Civil War, and even into the 20th century.

    Although China has consistently claimed that it has never researched or produced biological weapons, it is nonetheless believed likely that it retains a biological warfare capability begun before acceding to the BWC. China is commonly considered to have an active biological warfare program, including dedicated research and development activities funded and supported by the Government for this purpose. There is essentially no open-source data on the subject.

    Now even after so many years, the country faces a similar health emergency, after 444 cases of a new coronavirus emerged in the city of Wuhan.

    While China is better prepared for viral outbreaks following the experiences of the 2003 SARS episode, global markets are still prone to take fright when faced with such 'unknowns' - evidenced by the losses seen in the first half of this week.

    Stock markets and commodity prices turned sharply lower. According to Wall Street's big investors and strategists, the coronavirus, which appears to have spread from seafood or meat, has created a new level of uncertainty for global markets.

    While some analysts said that it's too early to predict anything as the new virus does not seem to be as lethal as SARS, which killed about 10 per cent of patients.

    Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have acknowledged that the virus was now being transmitted between humans, creating more concern of a mass epidemic. The new strain of SARs-like coronavirus infection can create respiratory problems, coughing, fever and in more severe cases, pneumonia.

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