“There’s always something that happens at Christmas time. There’s always some alert, or a signal of a suspected case. The last several years it’s been Mers [Middle East respiratory syndrome] – a suspect case travelling to Malaysia or Indonesia or Korea or somewhere in Asia from the Middle East. So there’s always some kind of signal. There’s always something that happens,” she said.
Checking out these reports of suspected infection, often in remote parts of the globe, is a way of life for Van Kerkhove and a select band of experts, including Christian Drosten in Germany, Marion Koopmans in the Netherlands and people from Public Health England and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I’m used to that over the holidays,” she said. “Usually it’s not a big deal. “This one was different.”
A cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin had been reported in China in the middle of winter. The email relayed a post from ProMED, the alert network of the International Society for Infectious Diseases. On the evening of 30 December, it said, the Wuhan municipal health commission had issued an “urgent notice” online, warning all medical facilities to be on the alert and put into effect their emergency plans. It pointed the finger of suspicion for the outbreak at the Huanan [meaning South China] seafood market.