WASHINGTON - Scientists need to cooperate with veterinarians and experts in animal industries to detect viruses before they become a problem in humans, says Dr Gregory C. Gray, Professor of Medicine, Global Health and Environmental Health at Duke University.
"The way to do that is to partner with professionals from human health, animal health, environmental health and the industries and looking at the viruses that may be crossing species at the human-animal interface," the global health expert told the Straits Times' weekly Asian Insider video and podcast.
Among other affiliations, Dr Gray is also a professor at the Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health Institute at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and a professor of Global Health at Duke Kunshan University in China.
He was speaking on the Asian Insider show together with The Straits Times' South Korea Correspondent Chang May Choon.
South Korea is one of the top concerns internationally outside China, along with Italy and Iran, because of the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak.
The East Asian country reported 5,766 cases on Thursday (March 5) with 35 people dead. This, though, South Korea has an advanced health care system and has administered several thousands tests for the coronavirus.
In contrast, the United States, caught flat footed, has yet to ramp up testing.
Dr Gray urged partnerships with professionals from human health, animal health, environmental health and the industries to look for viruses that may be crossing species at the human-animal interface.
"And once having identified a virus that crosses species, (they should) look for evidence that they may be causing infections in humans, and adapting as this virus has, to cause a lot of human to human transmission," he said.
The spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus has been "surprisingly fast," he said.
"The reproductive rate - the number of people infected from one case - is higher than we would have anticipated, for instance for a seasonal influenza virus," he told Asian Insider.
"So this virus is particularly effective at moving from person to person," Dr Gray said.
"In addition to that, almost everybody is going to be susceptible to this virus in contrast with the seasonal influenza, (to which) many people will have some partial immunity, either due to natural infections or vaccines," he noted.
"So this virus is a real set up for moving very quickly across populations. And in populations where we have areas with dense populations and poor sanitation, we're going to see really fast epidemics and certainly long term care facilities - perhaps prisons, schools, and day care centres - will see a lot of transmission," he said.
"Governments have to decide how much social distancing makes sense for their populations, and we're beginning to see that right now in the United States with the cancellation of some big scientific meetings that I am aware of, and talk of more emergency response, things that are not critical for people being together."
"In some countries we may even see some school systems shut down for a while. We have not seen such social distancing in this country (the US) for a long time," he said.