Not enough action after the SARS outbreak in 2003 is one of the reasons behind the current coronavirus epidemic in China believes a leading virologist.

Talking to Proactive, Professor John Oxford of Queen Mary University in London, said too little was done to develop a vaccine when SARS first became a serious problem.

Up until that point, coronaviruses had been considered mildly passive infections that came around once a year.

Suddenly, in 2003 however, a rogue virus sprung out of the coronavirus family and that was SARS.

It took a lot of public health expertise and management to squash it says Oxford, as there were no anti-vaccines, no anti-viral drugs just public health, quarantine and contact tracing.

That initial SARS breakout spread from bats to civet cats while a second coronavirus outbreak (MERS) in the Middle East in 2012 saw camels infected and then people.

“Now we’ve got the Wuhan virus and what concerns me is we should have reacted better to SARS in 2003.”

Oxford adds it could happen again.

“Viruses can be totally global and totally pandemic and that’s why they are so threatening.

They need constant attention, he adds, and everything that can has to be thrown at them to try and stop their spread.

“Before you realise it, they are on the move.”

So far, the Wuhan outbreak has resulted in 17,000 confirmed cases with 361 deaths.

Oxford adds he is not sure why there was not more of a reaction following SARS but now says a universal coronavirus vaccine is essential.

Finance is needed to take the practical knowledge and expertise gained from managing previous outbreaks and build that into vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

To stop the spread, people have to be to kept physically away from each other, hygiene such as washing hands must be improved and people who do get infected identified quickly and moved out of circulation and into quarantine.

Oxford is also the founder of hVIVO, now part of Open Orphan PLC (LON:ORPH), which runs one of the only quarantined facilities in Europe that run challenge trials for flu.