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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

How Europe is learning to live with a flu pandemic

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Chief Cabinet Secretary Jüri Luik said Friday that the government would spend more than €3 million to boost international surveillance on coronaviruses.

Coronaviruses have been a concern in recent years for several reasons. The last outbreak of coronavirus in Estonia, with the Põlva cluster of cases, made headlines last October. In 2018, there have been several such cases in Estonia, including Zarno Karsonova and Karmenu Pitkär.

The Kremlin kept, and then suddenly disappeared, from making it clear whether the attacks in Georgia that sickened 500 people were properly attributed to Russia or not. While the far-right populist party AfD is bound to gain popularity by predicting the end of Islamism in Western Europe, suspicion was expressed at the threat of “another pandemic coming out of Central Asia” in relation to the rise of such parties in Estonia and elsewhere.

Coronaviruses are controlled viruses which can spread between people, and are responsible for the sudden illnesses that have been linked to thousands of people suffering from serious illnesses, including Ebola, SARS and MERS. Their known modes of transmission consist of direct contact with the droplets of small bodily fluids released by an infected person.

The coronavirus, for the most part, has been a more minor problem in Estonia than in other nations. The Põlva cluster was found to be the result of a person suffering from the type of coronavirus that had never been identified in Estonia. This particular case was not yet linked to any other viruses, and the government initially had no details of the Russian or Kazakh person in Georgia. The connection, while later proven, was only later disclosed.

The prevailing wisdom at the time was that this was indeed a case of a new virus spreading rapidly between people, and that there was nothing to be worried about from a pandemic point of view. This thinking prevailed until a study published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature a few months later seemed to make it evident that there might be a connection.

This phenomenon could once again occur, depending on who the flu outbreak is harmful to. The enormous panic over the recently confirmed cases in parts of the United States and Europe serves to drive home the point that pathogens can cause deadly contagion. There is absolutely no reason to fear an outbreak of the variant of coronavirus responsible for the recent wave of illnesses, experts say.

In 2017, Dr. Michèle Conroy, chief epidemiologist at McGill University, and her team discovered the virus responsible for the “Porircovirus” — or ill of Porircoviral disease, related to the CPHE virus found in viruses like Nipah, Pertussis and St. Louis encephalitis — in a 12-year-old boy who had recently returned from the Middle East. The link was made only at the beginning of 2018. Conroy would only speculate on the number of cases in Europe where the virus was once present.

There have been similar outbreaks in the Middle East in the last few years. So far it is not known whether this is a pathogen of mass significance.

This virus has been observed in small populations, in some cases all together in one patient, which is considered the model for a pandemic. “However, a reported case in which a child has died of this virus, though hardly reported outside of Canada, is a serious event in its own right,” the virus expert Dr. Gregory Hartl of the WHO wrote in The BMJ. “In combination with other related viruses, this can become a major public health concern.”

The virus in question does not live long outside the body. “However, it is also possible that the virus could survive in particular settings and cause an infection,” wrote Dr. Lisa Todorov, a virologist with the Scientific Council of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

The surprising emergence of this viral strain is possibly owing to the possibility that vaccines for this particular strain are not in the pipeline because the virus has no documented history in Europe. However, given the recent infections in the west, experts say that the bird flu vaccine in Europe is no longer an option, though it is mandatory for all Estonians at the age of 65 and above.

It is not certain whether a new virus would arise in the next two to five years, or whether there will be other viruses that might become the next “pandemic” threat. Experts say there is no reason to panic and are concerned, not about a pandemic, but about a preventable illness.

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