A Free Email Service Broke the News of the Coronavirus in 2019

ProMED had previously spotted outbreaks of MERS, Zika, and Ebola

Image: Peter Zelei Images/Getty Images

TThe rumors first surfaced on WeChat and Weibo. Users of the Chinese social media platforms were saying a pneumonia-like illness had hit Wuhan — and that it was killing people. Staff at EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit that monitors emerging diseases, noticed this chatter in late December 2019.

Peter Daszak, president of the organization, combed through the material himself, popping paragraphs into Google Translate and getting back imperfect translations. Colleagues who spoke Chinese also helped him figure out what was going on.

“Clearly something was out there,” he told OneZero. “There was a lot of very contentious and often dramatic discussion.”

By New Year’s Eve, Daszak had gathered information that he thought was worth flagging to ProMED-mail, a service that sends out free regular alerts about disease outbreaks around the world to more than 83,000 email subscribers, many of them epidemiologists and public health experts.

When Daszak went to tell ProMED about what he’d found, he realized they had beaten him to it. On December 30, ProMED staff sent out an alert citing an urgent notice from Wuhan about an “unexplained pneumonia” spreading in the city.

“Here I am, flailing around. They already got it out,” Daszak recalls.

ProMED-mail, sometimes abbreviated to ProMED (which stands for Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases), has previously spotted outbreaks of MERS, Zika, and Ebola. Its staff and writers receive reports from health professionals around the world and monitor media for hints of new outbreaks. Experts in various diseases are on hand to help decide when it’s appropriate to publish an alert.

This time around, ProMED-mail was at the forefront again. It captured rising awareness of what would later be named Covid-19 very early on, when experts like Daszak were uncovering early hints that something was awry in Wuhan. It was with this free email service that the global response to Covid-19, in part, began.

Daszak’s contact at ProMED, deputy editor Marjorie Pollack, remembers seeing a photo someone had posted on Weibo of a release published by health authorities in Wuhan. After a bit of digging, she found a local press article describing the document.

“That verified the report was real,” Pollack says.

In the December 30 alert ProMED sent out, she noted that local government in China appeared to be acting with greater transparency than during the SARS outbreak in 2003. During that outbreak, some local officials suggested that the threat had been contained, when, in fact, it had not.

“Clearly something was out there.”

ProMED’s contributions to public health have not gone unnoticed. In early January, researchers at the French Ministry of Health published a short paper noting that ProMED-mail was frequently ahead of the curve in reporting disease outbreaks. They analyzed reports between 2007 and 2018 and found that when an outbreak was officially flagged by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) news service, ProMED-mail had, on average, raised the alarm 18.5 days earlier.

“In the past, certainly, WHO has let us know that ProMED information was what kind of spurred them to maybe send a few people out or investigate [a disease],” says Maja Carrion, a lecturer in health sciences at Boston University who used to work for ProMED.

According to the WHO, the ProMED-mail alert was one of a handful of sources that triggered its response on December 31. The other sources included HealthMap and the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), which both scour media sources around the world for signs of emerging disease outbreaks. HealthMap is freely available, whereas GPHIN is provided only to certain institutions.

For those realizing that something was developing in China, New Year’s Eve turned into a very strange night.

On the phone with Daszak, Pollack discussed the scant but concerning information they had both unearthed so far. She was pacing up and down outside a restaurant she had gone to with her husband.

“At a certain point in time, the waiter came out and said, ‘Your dinner is on the table,’” Pollack recalls. When she got home, she spent the rest of the evening at her computer.

A bottle of champagne Daszak had opened that night was never finished. But a tweet he had posted earlier that day about what he and ProMED-mail had found helped the news reach others in the same field.

“I just remember looking down at my phone, and Peter Daszak was talking about, ‘Hey, there’s this cluster of respiratory patients that we’re seeing in Wuhan,’” remembers Matt Watson, senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health and Security. He emailed his colleagues to say this was something they should keep an eye on.

The first Western media reports about the “mystery illness” in Wuhan appeared just a few days later.

It was crucial that both ProMED’s staff and Daszak recognized the urgency of the issue early on. Daszak says two warning signals revealed that this wasn’t going to be just a small-scale outbreak. First, many of his virology contacts in China suddenly went out of touch, which led him to suspect they were working on the disease and that it must be serious. Second, by late January, transportation links in and out of Wuhan were cut. There were other steps to curtail public gatherings, such as the closure of all 70,000 cinemas in China.

“Everybody working on infectious diseases saw what they did and knew they’re doing this because there’s human-to-human spread,” Daszak says.

By March 11, the WHO had declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The severity of this virus may have been recognized much later were it not for the early alarms raised via email and social media.

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.

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