What’s Next for the Coronavirus Outbreak?

coronavirus, stock image

Health officials around the globe are working to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak centered in China. 

The disease, discovered in late 2019 and now spreading faster than SARS, is known as COVID-19. As the outbreak continues, Pomona College experts in areas ranging from politics to biology weigh in on its ramifications. 

Morbidity and Mortality of Coronavirus

According to Pomona College Professor of Biology Sharon Stranford, during the SARS outbreak there was an initial overestimation of the virus mortality rate, which was thought to be 20 percent, when it was actually closer to 10 percent. "For this newer coronavirus, while we believe the current mortality rate is approximately two percent right now, it is hard to tell for certain until we know more about how many people are really infected, especially now that it appears individuals can be infected and asymptomatic. If these numbers are high, the mortality rate will be lower. To keep things in perspective, if we compare this new coronavirus with one season of influenza, the morbidity and mortality rate for coronavirus are still much lower.” 

Prevention: Back to Basics

“Basic good hygiene is key,” says Stranford. “Remember to wash hands with warm water and soap, cough into an arm, and keep distance from infectious people or those who present symptoms. Alcohol-based antibacterial sanitizers are generally unnecessary. Washing your hands with good old warm water and plenty of soap is highly effective. All viruses can’t survive for long outside the body, so if we’re careful and take appropriate measures, we can help contain the spread of disease.”

Differences Between Coronavirus and SARS Outbreaks

“Containment and the information distribution have been big issues with this coronavirus outbreak,” says Hong Kong expert and Pomona College History Professor Angelina Chin. “Some compare the current coronavirus to the SARS outbreak in 2003. One main difference is that SARS was first known in Hong Kong, which is known to have more transparent reporting mechanisms regarding epidemics than China. In mainland China, there were many undiagnosed cases of the new disease and the authorities tried to cover up the spread of the disease in the first few weeks. Even now, the official numbers about fatality and infection rates are not reliable.”

“Another difference between SARS and the new coronavirus disease is that when one was affected with SARS, the symptoms emerged quickly, whereas the people who were infected with the new coronavirus could have no symptoms for many days but still be carriers,” says Chin.

Genome Sequencing Can Help with Containment

Stranford says the sequence of the coronavirus was recently published and with this information, diagnostic kits can now be designed using a simple assay. “The assay used is a special type of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) that our students learn to make in their first semester of biology. The challenge is the capacity to develop and distribute enough kits to the areas that need it. Without these kits, it’s difficult to verify whether a person is actually infected with coronavirus.” 

Coronavirus Lived in Bats for a Long Time

“It is believed that this coronavirus originated from bats. But it is unlikely that the virus was transmitted directly to humans from bats,” says Stranford. “It may have jumped to another wild animal that either lived near or was sold in the market, and then was transmitted to humans.”

“Interestingly, bats have likely been harboring coronavirus for a long time. Over time, as an infectious agent adapts to its host, and vice versa, the pathogen can become less dangerous and both species can survive. Coronaviruses are RNA viruses, so they have a tendency to mutate over time, and when this happens they can sometimes infect a new species. This new host doesn’t have any experience with the virus, and the immune system can sometimes overreact causing damage to the host in an attempt to eradicate the virus, causing significant illness, especially in the elderly who are more susceptible in these coronavirus cases,” adds Stranford.

Effect of Coronavirus on Hong Kong’s Political Unrest

Chin says that the development in Hong Kong should be watched very closely. “The outbreak has created panic in the city, and it looks as though the protests have stopped. This is actually not the case. The inability to control the outbreak exposes the problem of the undemocratic government in Hong Kong and most people who were already involved in the protests feel even more strongly that only a democratically elected leader and government could handle the situation properly. 

"People are feeling even angrier with the political leadership now more than ever. The government is also doing nothing to help with the shortage of surgical masks available in the market. Instead of dying down, the protests in Hong Kong will likely continue long into 2020.” 

Outbreak is a Hit to China’s Government

“The coronavirus outbreak may destabilize the Chinese government. The spread of the disease is partly caused by the restriction of freedom of speech and press in mainland China. Doctors who were whistleblowers early on were warned or penalized by the authorities for stirring fear among the public. One of the eight doctors who warned the public died because he himself caught the virus. This crisis demonstrates why it is necessary for China to have democracy and freedom. If the epidemic lasts for a long time and there is no solution to it, it may lead to social and political unrest inside China,” says Chin. 

Effects on the East Asia Region

According to Politics Professor and East Asia expert Tom Le, East Asia has poor coordinating mechanisms to deal with transnational threats like disease, immigration and cybercrime. “There are no institutions in East Asia that serve as an organizing and coordinating mechanism to handle transnational threats. The region is still locked in Cold War rivalries, so they are more concerned with each other than threats that may affect them all simultaneously. It’s time to stop worrying about North Korea and deal with immediate, tangible and lasting threats. 

"Another factor to think about when dealing with transnational threats is that Taiwan needs to be let back into the World Health Organization (WHO). China has blocked Taiwan’s membership in WHO, which means inspectors can’t work with Taiwan or provide resources. This makes Taiwan more vulnerable in the short term, and the region in the mid to long-term. Disease doesn’t care about borders or membership. China blocking Taiwan’s membership is immoral and profoundly consequential.” 

Another Blow to China’s Image

“China has very weak soft power,” says Le. “They’ve worked hard to improve their image abroad, but the anti-Chinese sentiment concerning the virus proves it has not worked at all.”

“Over the years China has tried to improve its reputation abroad. Economically, the Belt and Road Initiative and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are supposed to be strong ties between China and much of the world. Culturally, it has pushed the Confucius Institutes, financed Hollywood projects, and engaged in propaganda to improve its image. None of this seems to have worked since anti-Chinese sentiment is in full force with the coronavirus. Part of it is because China lost a ton of good will with the way it’s handling Hong Kong’s political unrest.”


Biology Professor Sharon Stranford studies factors that influence the development of acquired immune deficiency. She and her undergraduate students study immune deficiency following exposure of Murine Leukemia Virus in mice. Other areas of academic interest include infectious disease and public health.

History Professor Angelina Chin’s research interests revolve around the transregional connections in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South China as well as the transformations of urban identity and citizenship in Modern East Asia. Chin is currently in Japan monitoring the situation closely.

Politics Professor Tom Le is an authority on East Asia and studies regionalism, comparative politics, international relations and security issues in this geographic area.  Le’s op-eds have been published by The Washington Post and The Hill and he has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times