A Free Email Service Broke the News of the Coronavirus in 2019
ProMED had previously spotted outbreaks of MERS, Zika, and Ebola
The 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…