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Epidemics and Pandemics as Transnational Issues: The Challenge of the Novel Coronavirus

In an article published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Dr. Robert J. Kim-Farley, professor of epidemiology and community health sciences for the Fielding School, addresses COVID-19 in the context of epidemics and pandemics. 

Monday, March 23, 2020

The first recorded pandemic occurred during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C. Suspected to be due to typhoid fever, the pandemic contributed to the Spartan victory over the Athenians. Since then, infectious diseases have had a significant impact on the course of human history.

The explosive outbreak of the new novel coronavirus, COVID-19, was first identified in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province in the People’s Republic of China. The outbreak is again challenging the global community, its governance structures, and its mechanisms for international collaboration. Many key data points critical to fully characterizing the disease epidemiology of COVID-19—including transmissibility, potential for asymptomatic spread, and risk factors for severe illness or death—are still emerging; as a result, a collective global response under strong World Health Organization (WHO) leadership, followed by  subsequent nation-level implementation, is vital to ensuring the good of the many is not sacrificed for the good of the few.

COVID-19 is in the same family as the coronavirus of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), the spread of which in 2002-2003 caused the first pandemic of the twenty-first century. It prompted the creation of an ad-hoc Emergency Committee (EC) composed of international experts convened under the International Health Regulations (IHR) that inform the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General. The IHR, which were last revised in 2005 following the SARS outbreak and subsequent calls for reform, obligate 196 state parties, including all WHO member states, to broadly work together to enhance global health security.