Global Pandemics: An Exploration of Coronavirus and Past Outbreaks

American History, COVID-19, Foreign Affairs, Law Journal Library, Medicine, U.S. Congressional Documents, U.S. Congressional Serial Set
Tara Kibler

In December 2019, Wuhan City in the Hubei province of China reported a group of nearly 30 pneumonia cases. In early January of this year, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the cause for many of the cases had been detected—a novel coronavirus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, a virus that causes the respiratory disease now deemed COVID-19.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, coronaviruses are a collection of viruses found in people and various animal species. Though rare, the outbreak of three known diseases—MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV, and COVID-19—has demonstrated that it is possible for animal coronaviruses to spread to people. All three of these known coronaviruses specifically trace their origins to bats.

When COVID-19 was initially detected, it was discovered that many of the first patients could be linked to a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan City. The disease rapidly spread to others, leading Wuhan City to be locked down by the end of January. However, around the same time, the first European case was reported in France, linked to a traveler from China. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern.”

Though much about COVID-19 remains unknown, we do know that the symptoms of this respiratory disease can range from mild to quite severe. In certain populations, including the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, COVID-19 has demonstrated that it can be fatal. Learn more about the symptoms associated with COVID-19.0

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As of this blog post, the disease has infected more than 135,000 people across the globe, with the number increasing by the thousands each day. Nearly 5,000 of those cases have succumbed to the disease. Keep tabs on COVID-19 with this interactive world map, updated daily.?

As the world attempts to combat coronavirus, view some of our newest content related to COVID-19. Then, keep reading to explore past global pandemics and the world’s response with HeinOnline’s Law Journal Library and various historical databases.


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COVID-19 Content in HeinOnline

Much is unknown about COVID-19, but each day, new research is published to contribute to the world’s knowledge of the disease. To keep our subscribers informed, HeinOnline is adding as much of this content as possible. View the most recent Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports on the topic below:

Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV): Developments in China and International Response (IF11421) *new*
Sara M. Tharakan; Susan V. Lawrence

Another Coronavirus Emerges: U.S. Domestic Response to 2019-nCoV (IN11212) *new*
Sekar, Kavya; Lister, Sarah A.

Researching Past Global Pandemics

1. Yellow Fever

Between 1668 and 1853, major outbreaks of yellow fever were reported across the United States after refugees from the Caribbean Islands brought the virus to Philadelphia. Spread by infected female mosquitos, the viral disease caused fever, bloody vomiting, and yellowing of the skin due to liver damage. During this time, yellow fever caused between 100,000-150,000 deaths in the United States. One severe outbreak in 1793 alone killed 9% of Philadelphia’s population. Attempts to develop a vaccine for yellow fever began in 1912 after the opening of the Panama Canal, but only Vaccine 17D (developed in the 1930s) is still in use today.

2. Cholera

Due to an increase in world commerce and migration in the 19th century, several cholera pandemics occurred between 1816 and 1923. The first occurred in Bengal and spread to India, infecting hundreds of thousands of Indians and British troops. By 1829, the second pandemic reached several countries in Europe. In 1833, Canada and New York became inundated with the disease. An infection of the intestine, cholera caused millions of deaths worldwide, including that of U.S. President James K. Polk in 1849.

3. Spanish Flu

During World War I, an unprecedented influenza pandemic known as the “Spanish flu” swept the globe, beginning in January 1918. The exact source of the flu is debated, but many experts agree that the mobilization of either troops or laborers in service of the war contributed to the outbreak of the disease. Known today as the deadliest epidemic in world history, the Spanish flu was the first of two H1N1 influenza outbreaks (the second being swine flu in 2009). After infecting approximately 27% of the world’s population in the early 1900s, the disease ultimately killed millions.

4. Polio

Just before the outbreak of Spanish flu, an epidemic polio infection appeared (though it wouldn’t reach its peak until the 1950s). Another viral disease spread through person-to-person contact, polio affected the nervous system and led to paralysis. After the presence of the mysterious illness was declared an epidemic in 1916, widespread panic led many Americans to flee to the country, cancel large gatherings, and avoid public places in general. That year alone, more than 6,000 died of the disease. Individuals confirmed to have polio were quarantined, and each day the names of new confirmed cases were published in the press. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself was diagnosed with the disease, as he was experiencing a gradually worsening paralytic illness. Polio later reached its peak in 1952 when more than 57,000 cases in the country were reported. Three years later, a vaccine was developed and the average number of cases per year dropped to below a thousand.


In the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic emerged, first appearing to be a severe lung infection. In reality, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was causing infected individuals to experienced a brief flu-like sickness, which then progressed to interfere with and destroy the immune system (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS). Originating from chimpanzees in West Africa, the disease can be spread by sexual transmission, contact with blood, bodily fluids or needles, or from mother to child. A cure has not yet been found for the disease, but treatments have been developed to slow its progression. Since its discovery, approximately 35 million people have been killed by HIV/AIDS.

6. Swine Flu

Another flu pandemic emerged in 2009, a new strain of the H1N1 influenza virus which had previously caused the Spanish flu. The disease was a reassortment of human, bird, and swine flu viruses combined with a Eurasian pig flu virus, leading the media to dub the disease the “swine flu.” An estimated 11 to 21% of the world’s population contracted the illness (approximately 700 million), but in total, only a few hundred thousand died.

7. Ebola

From 2013 to 2016, the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus disease occurred, primarily in West Africa. Some cases of Ebola appeared in the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and the United States, as well. First recorded in 1976, the symptoms of Ebola begin as a sore throat, fever, and fatigue, but can later progress to vomiting, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, internal bleeding. The disease is generally believed to have initially spread from one African family’s proximity to Angolan free-tailed bats. By May of 2016, the World Health Organization reported a total of 28,646 Ebola cases, approximately 39.5% of which were fatal.

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