By Shangxin Yang, PhD (FEL ’16). As I looked at the messages and pictures popping up on wechat from relatives, friends and colleagues in china, it was difficult, at first, to grasp exactly what I was seeing.
It was around Christmas, and word of a mysterious pneumonia was only just beginning to filter out of Wuhan, with no hint of how in just a few months it would explode as a global pandemic.
My initial thought was that it was a reemergence of SARS, which flared 17 years ago. And every time I heard talk about it arising from a seafood market where they sell wild animals, it struck me as similar to illnesses that have arisen when a bat virus jumps to an intermediary host and then to a human.
The government in China wasn’t yet talking about human- to-human transmission. But I know a great deal about virology — I have lectured on the subject to our pathology residents and microbiology fellows — and the news coming out of Wuhan suggested this wasn’t limited to animal-to-human transmission.
Already, some 70 people had been reported infected; I’d never heard of any animal-to-human viral transmission that had affected so many people at one time. It was obvious to me that human-to-human transmission was taking place.
And I knew it was going to be bad. It turned out I was right that it would be bad. But I was wrong in my estimate of how bad. I thought it would be like SARS, which infected about 8,000 people, killing 800, before it died out.
But as of this writing, in early April, there have been, according to the World Health Organization, more than 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 72,000 deaths worldwide.
I began to look more closely at the images and messages I was receiving daily from 6,800 miles away. This was real information, in real time, from friends and colleagues — doctors and nurses and health care professionals on the frontline of the epidemic in and near Wuhan. They were telling me what really was happening.
They told me there were more than 10,000 cases in the city at that time — far more than the government was reporting — and about hundreds of patients lining up for hours to get into hospitals and often being turned away because they were full. They sent me videos and pictures of desperate people in surgical masks crowding around what appears to be the front desk of a clinic.
There was an image of a woman sitting on a subway, a blue mask covering her face and a child on her lap, enshrouded in what looks like a plastic dry cleaning bag. People standing in line for a train or shopping in a market with plastic five-gallon water bottles over their heads.
The face of a black-and-white cat covered in a blue mask, its green eyes peering through holes cut in the fabric. Empty streets. A man in a car with a diaper wrapped over his nose and mouth. More people covered in plastic standing in lines or sitting at desks. More empty streets.
The pictures looked like scenes from a war zone.
I wanted my colleagues at UCLA to know how bad I thought this was going to be.
In my clinical microbiology laboratory, everyone had heard about this mysterious illness in China, but, like me at first, they didn’t recognize what it had the potential to become. Before this became a story dominating the headlines, I started sharing what I knew — firsthand information direct from ground zero of the outbreak — with Dr. Omai Garner (FEL ’12), the director of clinical microbiology, as well as with members of our UCLA Emerging Infectious Disease program and my lab colleagues at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
It was important that everyone understand what was coming.
Now I was looking at heat maps showing the spread of the illness. It moved very quickly. From the plot points on the map, you could see that within a week, it had spread from Wuhan, in Hubei Province, across nearly all of China.
I was struck by its incredible speed and the scale of the number of people infected. This was nothing like SARS, which, even though it spread to more than two-dozen countries, was more regional and easy to check. I gave my first lecture about this virus in mid-January, telling the students that this was a new coronavirus and was much more contagious than the previous coronaviruses we had seen. I told them how quickly this outbreak spread. “This is not a good time to travel,” I said. “You don’t want to go to the airport.” I told them to wash their hands.
I talked so much about it that my 8-year-old son started to ask me questions. “Am I going to die?” he asked. No, I told him. It’s going to be OK. “Are you going to die?” he asked. We talked a lot about the virus. I wanted him to understand about it, not just about what was happening but also about the science.
I explained that this virus has different risks for different populations. For kids, it’s not that bad. For the elderly, it could be very bad. And for everyone in between, it depends. He listened to what I told him, and then he took out his pens and drew a picture of the three faces of coronavirus.
The photos and video I received from Wuhan indeed looked like they were from a war zone. And I tell people that we literally are in a war. Our common enemy is a virus, and it is causing untold casualties.
I don’t know what is going to happen. I am glad that I am in the fight. You just have to do your best and cherish what you have.