BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama—Alison Noble’s scuba tank drops over the side of the boat with a deep splash. After pulling on two long white fins and a mask, she follows her tank into the water, fastening the straps and buckles that secure it around her neoprene wetsuit.

Noble checks with her buddy, takes a breath from her regulator, and the two divers descend side-by-side, letting air out of their buoyancy control devices to sink towards the bottom, towards the reef. Noble lays down a long tape measure, known as a transect among scientists, to mark their research area, and starts swimming. She’s looking for a bright white blaze, a malevolent stowaway on the currents that wash over these reefs. 

It’s called stony coral tissue loss disease, a plague that’s sweeping down the Caribbean from reefs just off of Miami, Florida.

Allison Noble and Sofia Madden collect data on coral reef condition and algal presence on a reef of staghorn coral draped with brittle stars in Bocas del Toro (first three photos clockwise from upper left). Blue and gold snapper school above a coral reef in Coiba National Park, Panama (lower left.) Photos by Tim Briggs for Northeastern University

Noble, a fourth-year marine biology student at Northeastern, is one of 13 students surveying a coral reef off the coast of Panama for signs of the disease as part of the Three Seas program, a year-long intensive marine biology curriculum. She’s surveying the reef in Panama as part of the Biology of Corals class, watching for what could be the newest outbreak of stony coral tissue loss disease.

Three Seas student Max Fournier takes notes on a slate during a snorkel in Coiba National Park, Panama. Photo by Tim Briggs for Northeastern University

The Caribbean is the third “sea” of Three Seas. The students also study the Salish Sea from a facility near Seattle, and the Gulf of Maine from Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts.

Along her transect, Noble takes note of the species and health of every coral she finds. Corals are made up of hundreds or thousands of small organisms called polyps, which live as a single colony. Each polyp is filled with colorful plankton called zooxanthellae, which photosynthesize and pass food on to their polyp hosts. When a coral dies, it turns a harsh white as it loses its zooxanthellae and reveals its limestone skeleton.

First seen in 2014 but not studied until 2017, stony coral tissue loss disease threatens twenty species that comprise the heart of the Caribbean’s coral reefs. Reefs provide food and beauty to the islands, mainland, and world, attracting tourists and scientists alike.

Marine Biology student Lark Parmalee collects data on coral condition and disease in Bocas del Toro, Panama, with a coral in distress in the foreground, possibly infected with stony coral tissue loss disease (left). Three Seas students Erin Campbell and Allison Noble watch for birds with Pete Lahanas, professor of tropical and terrestrial ecology, at Bird Island, Bocas del Toro, Panama (upper right). A spotted cleaner shrimp sits on an anemone in the shallows of Bocas Del Toro, Panama (lower right). Photos by Tim Briggs for Northeastern University

Using a slate and a pencil to write underwater, Noble marks down a diseased coral: CNAT SCTLD? Translation: Colpophyllia natans, possible stony coral tissue loss disease. Colpophylia natans is the classical ideal of a brain coral, which features winding alleys of polyps separated by peaks and valleys of limestone dressed in vivid greens, yellows, and sometimes, purples—pigments in their resident zooxanthellae that they use to photosynthesize. This coral, however, has been stripped of its regalia, and instead presents swaths of white death. 

“Symptoms of SCTLD are highly variable, so it was often difficult to tell whether a colony was affected by SCTLD, another disease, or something else entirely,” says Noble. “Our professors believe that there were cases of SCTLD on the reefs, which was incredibly alarming.”

Three Seas field operations specialist and graduate Erin Sayre leads a dive on a coral reef in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This reef was killed by a rising layer of warm, oxygen deprived water in 2017. Marine biology students in the Three Seas program are studying how coral reefs like this one are changing because of climate change, and how they may be able to adapt and recover. Photo by Tim Briggs for Northeastern University

Though many researchers are trying to find the answer, no one knows what causes the disease. Early studies hint at bacteria, as some researchers have found success in saving some colonies by treating the infections with antibiotics. The first alarm that something was happening to Florida’s reefs was raised by William Precht, an environmental consultant in Florida who has taught coral reef ecology for more than thirty years in the Three Seas program, where he teaches coral reef ecology in partnership with Northeastern associate professor Steve Vollmer. Precht’s research on the cause of the disease is funded by a National Science Foundation grant.

Precht and Vollmer recently attended a meeting in Cozumel, Mexico, once home to some of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean, now ravaged by stony coral tissue loss disease. In January, Vollmer will be teaching the graduate program of Three Seas, which will continue to monitor the area for new signs of the disease.  

“Given the rates of infection and mortality seen in other areas, an outbreak could completely devastate the corals of Bocas,” Noble says. “The reefs that we dove on could be gone a year from now. In a situation like this, it’s really important to hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

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An employee sprays disinfectant on a train as a precaution against a new coronavirus at Suseo Station in Seoul, South Korea on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. China broadened its unprecedented, open-ended lockdowns to encompass around 25 million people Friday to try to contain a deadly new virus that has sickened hundreds, though the measures' potential for success is uncertain. AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Fear of a global pandemic is one of the factors driving China’s surprising decision to shut down airports in the hope of containing a dangerous virus.

The Chinese government also appears to be influenced by the failure of its response in 2002-03 to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, says Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern and former China bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. The SARS epidemic resulted in the deaths of almost 800 people among the estimated 8,000 who were infected.

Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern, reported on China for 30 years for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and The Boston Globe. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern

One dozen cities near the center of the current outbreak were included in the Chinese travel lockdown that was announced on Friday. The mysterious coronavirus, which is believed to have begun at a seafood market in Wuhan, a sprawling provincial capital in central China, has killed at least 100 of the more than 4,500 people who are known to be infected. The disease has spread to 15 countries, mostly in Asia, but also Europe, Australia, Canada, and the U.S., where five cases have been reported thus far. The travel limits are affecting more than 50 million people. 

“Are they just being cautious, or are things more serious than we know?” says Kaufman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who reported on China for 30 years for The Wall Street JournalBloomberg News, and The Boston Globe. “That’s part of the part of the mystery here: Do the Chinese know something that we don’t about this virus, based on the dramatic sanctions? What exactly is motivating them?”

Kaufman was recently in China to update his book, The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China, which will be published by Viking in June.

What did you see, in terms of the response to the outbreak, when you were in China in early January?


I was in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and you could already see nervousness. You saw some people with masks, and you could see they had begun to set up [medical] stations at the airports and train stations. So they hadn’t gone into full attack mode yet, but they were clearly getting ready, because I think they wanted to move fast if this became more serious.

You were a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal when SARS broke out. How did China’s experience with SARS influence the ongoing response to the Wuhan coronavirus?

We did a lot of reporting on it, which was quite difficult because the Chinese were covering it up. My family had to come back to Boston because the international schools were closing, and it became a full-blown crisis that grew worse because China moved very slowly to let the world know what was happening. 

My sense is the Chinese are trying to move very fast to understand and contain this because they realize how damaging it can be in an international environment, especially after the criticism they took for covering up SARS. If you don’t move fast enough, the consequences can be devastating, not just in the health sense, but for your economy and your reputation.

What were the consequences of China’s slow response to SARS?

A lot of foreign businesses sent their executives home. There was a fear among the Chinese that this could really slow foreign investment in China. And then Hong Kong and many of the countries in Southeast Asia felt betrayed because China wasn’t telling them what was going on. Separate from the health concerns and the people who died, which was really unfortunate, what really rattled China was that SARS could destabilize both its image in the world and its effort to become a responsible global power.

Is China’s current response signaling not only a desire to be a better global neighbor, but also to show responsibility in its larger goal to overtake the U.S. as a world leader?

They do want to be part of a global system, and my sense is that this very rapid and almost extreme response is an effort to say to the world that ‘We are going to try to get a handle on this.’

China has been very active in the United Nations and its peacekeeping missions, and in terms of foreign investment in Africa. I think they do see an opportunity that as the U.S. retreats from the world stage, this is an opportunity for China to show that it is a responsible actor.

Is it in some ways easier for an authoritarian state like China to respond to a crisis like this than it would be for a representative democracy like the U.S.?

The one thing China is able to do is to impose restrictions and rules. I’ve talked to people in China who said that once the announcement came out that people should wear masks, everybody was wearing masks. Conversations I’ve had with people in China indicate that the buses are empty. People are staying home. China is a society where the government has the ability to shut down the country, which is what they’re doing in many parts now. 

What is different is that with social media, and with a more sophisticated population of people who have traveled and had some freedom to go to other countries and meet other kinds of people, there is a lot of anger. People are upset that maybe they can’t get masks, or that the government isn’t telling them exactly what is going on. So I think there are risks for China. If you look on social media, you’re already seeing some Chinese saying, ‘Why are our leaders not here visiting us? Why aren’t we getting more information?’ When the U.S. has a health crisis, we want to hear from our leaders. In China, there’s more a sense of, ‘We’ll tell you what to do, and we’ll explain it to you later.’

Do you see signs from this crisis that China may someday express leadership on other global issues, including climate change?

Climate is much more complicated—it involves political and economic issues for China. But I do think that the more they are trying to cooperate with the world in addressing problems like this, the better it is. Because China is a powerful country. It’s an influential country. And you want a system in which countries respect each other and cooperate when there is a crisis. At this point, I feel that this is a good sign that China is moving so aggressively, and certainly being more transparent and aggressive than during SARS.

What are the hardships for the Chinese people? How are they responding?

This is Chinese New Year, and hundreds of millions of people are traveling to their home villages, they’re traveling to see relatives. I believe that more people are riding the train in China during this two-week period than the [rest of the] year. 

Imagine the U.S. shutting down public transportation on the week of Thanksgiving or Christmas. That’s what is going on in China now.

So this is both a logistical issue and an emotional issue. This is the one chance for many Chinese to have a vacation, their one chance to travel and see their family. And suddenly they’re being told they can’t travel, or it may be dangerous to travel; or they show up at a relative’s city and suddenly they can’t leave. Many Chinese are very angry with what is going on, and they’re asking a lot of questions.

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