Newell: Hard-won lessons from SARS outbreak can help us now

Newell Normand
April 10, 2020 - 2:30 pm


 Dr. Michael Lewis is a public health and infectious disease expert as well as a former US Army Colonel who was stationed out ‘ground zero’ in Southeast Asia during the breakout of the SARS in 2003. He joined Newell Friday morning to talk about what that disease can teach us about the spread of infectious disease and how that knowledge helps us in battling COVID-19.

“You traveled the world looking at the frailties on so many different fronts that led us to where we are today with this novel coronavirus,” Newell began. “In your experience, what have you seen here that’s similar to what you saw then?”

“The most obvious similarities are where the virus began and the fact that they are both coronaviruses, but the similarities seem to end there,” Dr. Lewis said. “A lot of the symptoms are very much the same, but the infectiousness of COVID-19 is far greater than SARS. The mortality isn’t as bad, but the rate at which is passed between people is much worse. The percentage of fatalities among people that get infected with this virus is significantly lower, but when it reaches such a large number of people, those numbers can really go up.”

“What did you see in Southeast Asia during the SARS outbreak as it relates to the response, and how does that compare to what you see now?”

“With SARS people got sicker, quicker,” Dr. Lewis continued. “With COVID-19 people can walk around for potentially a week before they start to develop symptoms. So early on, you can be exposed and be getting sick without knowing it, and jump on a plane and fly around the world, and that’s part of the reason it spread as quickly as it did.”

“Everybody gathers intel, and there is a thing called ‘medical intelligence,’ as you well know. What does it say about the relationships we have with other countries and their desire or willingness to be completely transparent and honest?” Newell asked. “It seems to me that the sooner you get your arms around this and identify what you’re dealing with, the safer you make the entire world.”

“You’re absolutely right, and that was the reason the Army had me stationed in Southeast Asia 20 years ago,” Dr. Lewis said. “My job was to literally develop partnerships so we could identify problems early on, and that's what we’re really missing right now. That’s what the WHO and other international organizations should be doing. Some cultures, some countries, some administrations are very closed and not forthcoming. Pressure needs to be put on some of those. With the transparency that we have here in the United States it’s easy to think that the rest of the world should be like that, but unfortunately - it is not!”

“Thinking back to SARS, I recall there was a physician who wrote a letter to the media, and blew the whole thing out of China wide open,” Newell said. “He’s been in jail ever since, and now we see the same things happening here, where physicians are talking amongst themselves, sending up red flags, and then they get pulled in and allegedly quarantined and one gets convicted of trying to mislead the public. We’re seeing the same thing here - the patterns are exactly the same! But the first time, with SARS, a lot of people credit that doctor with preventing it from becoming a significant pandemic.”

“It wasn’t just the doctors in China,” Dr. Lewis replied. “Part of why SARS was able to be understood quicker is that it went through Hong Kong and into Hanoi and it was an Italian doctor there who raised the real big red flag and said ‘hey world, this is a bad thing here.’ We were fortunate in that case to be able to get the word out quicker so things could start to clamp down with testing, isolation, and quarantine with SARS. Whereas this time around, it was really bad timing because coronavirus started going around in Wuhan right in time for winter holidays where tens of millions of people are traveling. It was the lack of transparency, but really more so, just bad timing.”

Hear the entire interview in the audio player below.



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