Even as the number of known cases skyrockets, and with more than two dozen countries infected, the World Health Organization (WHO) just days ago declared the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global health emergency.

Public health expert and pioneering physician Larry Brilliant, MD, a former WHO epidemiologist who was one of the leaders of the team that eradicated smallpox in India in 1980, says:

“We have two enemies in this pandemic. The first is the novel coronavirus, which shows no signs of leaving any country or community untouched. And the second enemy is the epidemic of fear, which paralyzes us into inaction.”

To make the right decisions, we need to constantly review the facts on the ground, which are changing daily: the next information we are getting about death and disability rates, the severity of the disease, how it is spreading and who is most vulnerable. In addition to the health consequences, says Dr. Brilliant, we also need to understand the effects of quarantine, disruptions in supply chains and the global costs of a full-blown pandemic – which could reach the hundreds of billions or even trillions.

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“Our real enemy is… the virus of fear,” says Dr. Brilliant, senior science advisor to the movie “Contagion” which bears an uncanny similarity to this current outbreak.

While there are many unknowns, vigilance and a clear understanding of risk is critical, particularly for leaders of global business as well as health professionals.

Hailed as humanity’s best hope against the next pandemic, Dr. Brilliant, a leader and the heart of Google.org and Chair of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, is an optimist. There’s no doubt, he says, that we will stop this outbreak, end the deaths, and if done right, build the tools to prevent another one like it.

But he’s also a realist. He cautions that Wuhan coronavirus case numbers and the extent of exports are likely underestimated. And in the U.S., he points out that epidemic preparation has been deprioritized by the current administration.

For now, however, we should be calm and carry on, but act with urgency. You should also look to his Twitter feed for real-time updates and expert insights that discern factual happenings from hyperbole.

Larry Brilliant is available for advisory/consulting services through the exclusive representation of Stern Speakers, a division of Stern Strategy Group®.