Bernardo M. Villegas
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Epidemic of Fear is Worse (Part 1)

          Like all others who are not doctors or microbiologists, I am always at the mercy of the next Viber or Facebook message about how the COVID-19 is starting to spread in communities in the Metro Manila area and elsewhere.  The declaration of an enhanced community quarantine  for the whole of Luzon last March 16 by President Duterte did not help to calm my fears.  Since I am among the senior citizens who are supposed to be most vulnerable to the disease, there is a great temptation to enclose myself in the comfort of my home and to cancel all sorts of engagement, business or otherwise, that will bring me to public places.  In fact, in the last week or so, some of the board meetings I regularly attend have been either cancelled or have been reformatted so that we could use Zoom or other digital applications to enable us to meet online.  Classes have been cancelled for the coming two weeks till April 14, 2020.  I ask myself, are we succumbing to an epidemic worse the Corona virus itself?  Are we gripped by an epidemic of fear?

         I am fortunate that one of the articles forwarded to me by my Vibermates was from a microbiologist from a leading European institution with which I am very familiar.  I am referring to an article published by the World Economic Forum by Dr. Ignacio Lopez-Goni, a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain.  My own University in the Philippines, the University of Asia and the Pacific, has very close ties with the University of Navarre, one of the best private universities not only in Spain but also in the entire European continent.  In fact, in a recent ranking of European universities, the University of Navarre (UNAV) was named the third best after the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. UA&P and the University of Navarre have had numerous professorial, student, research and other exchanges over several decades. The reputation of UNAV has spread among many Filipino families so that today there is a large Filipino community among the undergraduates studying in the Pamplona campus.  I spent several years as a Visiting Professor at the IESE Business School, one of the top business schools in the world today.  IESE is part of the UNAV system.

         Dr. Lopez-Goni is part of the Centre for Applied Medical Research  (Centro de Investigacion Medica Aplicada or CIMA) of UNAV.  This research centre has worked with leading pharmaceutical companies all over Europe in doing basic research on diseases and the pharmaceutical products that can cure these diseases.  One can count on the professionals who work for CIMA to provide scientifically-based information on such phenomena as the COVID-19 virus.  The article Dr. Lopez-Goni wrote for the World Economic Forum is an outstanding example of a facts-based communication on an issue in which fear mongers have abounded. That is why I  would like to share with my readers much of the content of his balanced assessment of how to keep things in perspective in thinking and talking about Coronavirus.

         He starts the article by admitting that, regardless of whether we classify the new coronavirus as a pandemic, it is a serious issue.  In less than two months in early 2020, it has spread over several continents (Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa,  North  and South America).  He defines “pandemic” to mean sustained and continuous transmission of the disease, simultaneously in more than three different geographical regions.  Pandemic does not refer to the lethality of a virus but to its transmissibility and geographical extension. Unfortunately, the pandemic of fear has gone far ahead of the pandemic of the disease itself.  He observes that the entire planet’s media has been gripped by Coronavirus.  He does not object to the deep concern found among leaders in both the government and private sectors.  He also thinks that it is wise to plan for the worst-case scenarios.  It is also logical that the issue has spilled over from the health sphere to business and politics.

         It is equally important, though, that we should not panic. Although we cannot say that there is good news coming out of COVID-19, there are enough reasons to be optimistic.  As a scientist, Dr. Lopez-Goni is confident that there are ways to contain and defeat the virus.  He also is grateful for lessons that we are learning for the future.  The first reason to be optimistic is that we know what Coronavirus is. In contrast, the first cases of AIDS were described in June 1981 and it took more than two years to identify the virus (HIV) causing the disease.  With COVID-19, the first cases of severe pneumonia were reported in China on December 31, 2019.  Seven days later, the virus had already been identified.  The genome was available on day 10.  The disease is called COVID-19, thought to be related to coronavirus of bats.  Genetic analyses have confirmed that it has a recent natural origin (between the end of November and the beginning of December) and that, although viruses live by mutating, its mutation rate may not be very high.

         The second reason for optimism is that we know how to detect the virus.  Since January 13, a test to detect the virus has been available.  Third, the situation has improved significantly in China.  The strong control and isolation measures imposed by China are paying off. For several weeks now (circa March 8), the number of cases diagnosed every day is decreasing.  A very detailed epidemiological follow-up is being carried out in other countries; outbreaks are very specific to areas which can allow them to be controlled more easily.   The disease causes no symptoms or is mild in 81% of cases.  It has to be said, though, that in the remaining 14 %, it can cause severe pneumonia and in 5% it can become critical or even fatal.  It is still unclear what the ultimate death rate could be.  There is a likelihood that the death rate could be lower than some some estimates so far.  The rate of healing is quite high.  Much of what is being reported is about the increase in the number of confirmed cases and number of deaths, but most infected  people are cured.  What should be emphasized is that there are 13 times more cured cases than deaths, and that proportion is increasing. To be continued.