Once again we stand unprepared as the third epidemic of a new and deadly coronavirus races around the world. This need not have been the case.

We should have learned from the SARS epidemic of 2003, which claimed nearly 800 lives, that coronaviruses can turn deadly. Until then, most health officials and scientists regarded coronaviruses simply as one of many causes of the common cold; some 30 percent of common colds start from coronaviruses. Then came the MERS epidemic in the Middle East in 2012, a coronavirus that killed 858 people. The irrefutable lesson from SARS and MERS: coronaviruses can spread quickly and be deadly.

Why, then, is there no way to prevent or treat the disease in 2020? Science had the tools in the immediate aftermath of the previous two epidemics to develop the drugs to control future outbreaks. But health officials, scientists and governments, especially but not only in the United States and China, dropped the ball.

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Originally published on Scientific American (January 29, 2020)