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The Nikkei View

World must be ready for long coronavirus fight

Contingency plans need to assume disruption could last months

A medical official takes the temperature of a man in the departure hall of an airport in Changsha, China, on Jan. 27 as the country rushes to halt the spread of a new coronavirus.   © Reuters

As the number of coronavirus cases in China soars and the infection spreads to more countries, the world must steel itself for a potentially long battle with an unseen enemy.

China has put Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, under a virtual lockdown -- yet infections continue to crop up widely, suggesting that the move came too late.

According to local media reports, there were a total of 4,539 cases and 106 deaths in China as of noon on Jan. 28. The number of reported cases has been growing by a thousand per day.

The outbreak is raging during the Lunar New Year holiday period, when Chinese international travel rises sharply. So far, the number of coronavirus cases outside mainland China remains in the dozens.

But given the pathogen's estimated incubation period of up to 14 days, the number could grow. Countries must make coordinated efforts to prevent a global pandemic.

Much about this new form of coronavirus remains unknown. Most of the deaths from the virus in China reportedly befell patients who had other serious medical conditions. If even healthy people start becoming gravely ill on a wide scale, that would indicate that the virus has grown stronger.

Further analysis is needed to look for genetic mutations that could make the virus more infectious or deadlier. Such findings should be disseminated worldwide and made public to the extent possible.

At the Jan. 22-23 meeting, the World Health Organization stopped short of declaring the new coronavirus a global health emergency. That decision may need to be reassessed in light of the latest developments.

More than 10,000 people are believed to have traveled from Wuhan to Japan alone between the time the infections began and the start of the city's quarantine. The Japanese government on Jan. 28 added the coronavirus to the nation's infectious disease control list, a move that allows such precautions as isolating patients and restricting work attendance. Travelers will be required to provide accurate health-status reports at quarantine stations.

Such actions are warranted given the urgency of the situation, despite legitimate concerns about restricting individual freedom of movement.

A prolonged epidemic in China risks disrupting businesses that depend on the world's second-largest economy. Wuhan is home to automaking ventures backed by Honda Motor and Nissan Motor as well as numerous auto parts suppliers connected to the global supply chain. 

The 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, also caused by a type of coronavirus, took about eight months to subside. Corporations need to have business continuity plans in place for the new disease that account for the possibility of another long disruption.

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