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Coronavirus most recent in long series of alarms

Public health officials in China seemed cautiously hopeful Sunday that the outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus may be on the decline. They explained that the number of new cases reported during the 24 hours ending at midnight Saturday was noticeably lower than the report for the previous 24 hours.

Still, the outbreak is a reminder of the peril of so-called “emerging diseases.” By Sunday morning, the coronavirus death toll in China had reached 811. A handful of deaths outside that country had been reported. Just one American, a man who had been living in China, was on the fatality list.

Deaths during the weekend pushed the total to more than th 774 believed to have been killed by the widely reported SARS outbreak in 2002-03.

Of course, numbers from the SARS episode are highly suspect. That disease, too, was centered in China — and in its aftermath, it appeared that for one reason or another, officials in Beijing were not being candid in the number of deaths they admitted.

This time, Chinese officials may be releasing more accurate figures. And, in contrast to their handling of SARS, they have welcomed international assistance in battling the coronavirus.

Still, Chinese authorities were being criticized for being slow in their initial reaction to the current outbreak. Critics say it might have been contained better had decisive steps been taken sooner.

No doubt some observers will term the coronavirus outbreak a “wake-up call” regarding emerging diseases. If so, however, it is just the most recent in a long series of alarms. Clearly, scientists who have warned more resources need to be devoted to detecting and fighting new diseases are right.

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