In 2011, a novel virus,MEV-1, emerged from China and quickly spread throughout the world, killing 2.5 million people in the U.S. and 26 million worldwide.
That outbreak wasn’t real, of course—it was the plot of the film Contagion, providing a Hollywood-style glimpse into the panic that surrounds a global pandemic. At the moment, we’re in the midst of a very real outbreak spreading throughout the world from China. The real outbreak and the fictional one are related in one important way: a virus made the “jump” into an unprepared world.
This new outbreak is both frightening and familiar. Looking back over many decades, recent viral outbreaks fit a pattern that is now well-recognized. It goes like this: a virus that lives in animals makes the jump to humans. Perhaps it happens in a live-animal market, such as the one in Wuhan, China, that authorities initially flagged as the source of the current outbreak, or perhaps it came from some other animal source. People start getting sick and passing the infection around. Nobody pays attention for days, weeks or even months if the majority of cases are mild and go unnoticed, or they are assumed to be related to other known diseases circulating in the region.
Sometimes the public is unaware of a potential new threat because authorities are keeping quiet to avoid causing panic or retribution if they are wrong about early details. Then, suddenly, an outbreak is detected, the alarm sounds, the public takes notice and the world is enveloped in a global crisis.
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