Covid-19 likely to last till end-2020 at least: Experts

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(From left) The Straits Times' senior health correspondent Salma Khalik with Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, Professor Leo Yee Sin and Professor Tikki Pangestu. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - The number of people diagnosed with Covid-19 is growing around the world, and as the epicentre of the outbreak shifts away from China, it is unlikely that the disease will taper off like Sars did, said experts on Monday (March 9).

"The virus is here to stay until the end of the year," said Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, infectious diseases programme leader at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

With the spike in cases globally, hopes that the outbreak will be over by April or May will be dashed, he said. The global number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 has surpassed 100,000 and the death toll is close to 4,000.

Prof Hsu was one of four esteemed panellists who spoke to The Straits Times' senior health correspondent Salma Khalik in an hour-long discussion, which was broadcast live on the newspaper's social media channels.

The other three are Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH); Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases; and Professor Tikki Pangestu, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former director of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) research policy and cooperation department.

Prof Pangestu outlined three possible scenarios the world is facing:

- One, more countries will have outbreaks, including severe cases, and it would continue to be an emergency.

- Two, the virus might "disappear completely", similar to how Sars did, said Prof Pangestu, referring to the 2003 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome that claimed almost 800 lives globally.

- Three, the virus becomes endemic, and mankind might have to live with its continued existence, like other viruses such as the H1N1 swine flu virus.

He said: "The third scenario is what the WHO is thinking of. It's going to become part of our daily existence."

Prof Leo noted that scenario two - that the virus can be "pushed back" - is unlikely to happen.

The way the virus is "secreted" differs between patients with Sars and those with Covid-19.

Patients with Covid-19 tend to secrete the virus earlier, making its control difficult, she pointed out.

MOH's Prof Mak said: "The way things are going, Covid-19 won't go away in one to two months. So we have to be mentally prepared... and even consider it as a new normal."

He stressed the importance of continued vigilance, and the importance of personal hygiene.

"If we fail to limit and ring-fence (those infected with the virus), that's where numbers go up... and it will be challenging to stop it."

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