Sep 29, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – The heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) cautioned last week that another outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is possible in the United States or elsewhere.
CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said at a Sep 26 news conference that the federal agencies are preparing for the possible re-emergence of the virus.
Gerberding said, "We don't know whether this virus is going to come back or not, but as an infectious disease expert, I can say in my experience I've never seen a pathogen emerge and go away on its own. So I think we have to expect that somewhere, some time, this coronavirus is going to rear its ugly head again and that's the whole purpose of all this preparedness effort."
Thompson, making his sixth trip to the CDC's Atlanta headquarters, said HHS is working with other federal agencies to prepare for SARS. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is working on a vaccine, but it will not be ready this year, he said. The agency is also examining the effectiveness of existing antiviral and other drugs for treating SARS. Also, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is developing diagnostic tools and assisting the NIH in vaccine development.
Gerberding said the CDC aims to provide leadership during a possible SARS outbreak in four main areas: planning, people, products and tools, and practice. She said planning for a future SARS outbreak began during the original outbreak, and the CDC has hired several coronavirus experts since then.
Products under development include reagents for diagnostic testing, Gerberding said. "Our laboratories are fast and furiously developing reagents, testing them, and working very hard to make sure that we've got the state of the art available in the field when we need it to diagnose the first cases."
While the United States has not experienced a major SARS outbreak, the CDC has had multiple opportunities to practice its response capabilities during other public health crises, according to Gerberding. Thompson cited monkeypox, West Nile virus, and Hurricane Isabel as examples of recent public health problems that have tested the CDC's preparedness.
Gerberding promised that the CDC will be prepared to respond to a SARS outbreak: "We're living in the age of the new normal of emerging health threats and this preparedness for SARS is going to pay off sooner or later, because if it's not SARS, it will be something else, and we'll be ready for it."
Thompson and Gerberding used the news conference as an opportunity to encourage people to get an influenza vaccination this season.
Because the flu and SARS have similar symptoms, Gerberding said, getting a flu shot may aid in the diagnosis of SARS. "Right now, we've had no new SARS patients, so if someone comes into the emergency room with a flu-like illness, it'd be safe to assume it's flu, and that's exactly why we are strongly recommending that all Americans who have risks for influenza get their flu vaccine," she said.
She added that labs around the country have fast diagnostic tests for the flu, and those labs are encouraged to identify new flu cases as rapidly as possible.
Transcript of CDC telebriefing