Empty beds at a Wuhan exhibition center, among several facilities retrofitted into hospitals
Chine Nouvelle—SIPA/Shutterstock
February 6, 2020 5:57 AM EST
Professor Peter Piot is Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and former Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. He co-discovered Ebola in 1976.

We should not be surprised by this new coronavirus, but are we ready for a potential pandemic?

Early action is critical to stemming outbreaks. Look no further than the glaring failures in the initial responses to HIV, and to Ebola in West Africa.

The International Health Regulations’ all-or-nothing approach must reform. In most emergencies, there is a spectrum of alerts–think of hurricanes with levels of severity from Category 1 to Category 5–and it should not be a binary decision for health.

Receiving less attention is the unprecedented threat 2019-nCoV poses to Africa, a continent battling multiple outbreaks, including the world’s second largest-ever Ebola epidemic. The silver lining is the recently established Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which is working to enhance preparedness and response.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak highlighted a failure in the R&D system to tackle infectious diseases that affect relatively smaller populations in poorer countries. This is why the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was created, and it has issued three contracts to develop vaccines against 2019-nCoV.

Where we have an effective vaccine, we must move from an expensive reactive response to a proactive one, vaccinating frontline workers to ensure the first line of defense is not paralyzed.

This outbreak reminds me more of a new flu epidemic than of SARS. More transmissible but, from early data at least, lower mortality.

We do know how to stop pandemics: more international collaboration, community engagement and knowledge sharing.

Piot, a TIME Person of the Year, is director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

This appears in the February 17, 2020 issue of TIME.

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