February 'pivotal to how big outbreak will be'

The coming weeks will be pivotal for scientists to determine the severity and virulence of the coronavirus originating from Wuhan, said Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot.
The coming weeks will be pivotal for scientists to determine the severity and virulence of the coronavirus originating from Wuhan, said Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The coming weeks will be pivotal for scientists to determine the severity and virulence of the coronavirus originating from Wuhan, says infectious diseases expert Peter Piot.

"The month of February is going to be very critical and will tell us if the outbreak is going to be much bigger or not," Professor Piot told The Straits Times recently. He is a Belgian microbiologist who co-discovered the Ebola virus.

This is when the hundreds of millions of people travelling to and out of China and within the vast nation during the Chinese New Year break return home.

This potentially increases the spread of the virus, added Prof Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"If the virus spreads in nations that have healthcare systems that are less developed, it might be a cause for concern," he said last month.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has similar concerns.

On Jan 30, the WHO declared the outbreak of the virus a public health emergency of international concern.

Its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the greatest concern was the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health-care systems.

The total death toll in the current outbreak stands at more than 800, with most of the deaths reported in China. Hong Kong and the Philippines have also reported deaths.

At press time, at least 40 people were infected in Singapore and the number included cases of local transmission, the first of which was announced last Tuesday.

Outside China, Singapore is one of the nations with the highest number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

 
 
 
 

Still, experts noted that Singapore had acted to stem the spread of the virus long before the WHO declared the situation a public health emergency.

"Countries did not wait for that decision before they took action - certainly not Singapore but also others in the region, including China.

"We have learnt some lessons from Sars in particular," said Prof Piot, referring to the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) that killed nearly 800 people worldwide, including 33 in Singapore.

Professor Wang Linfa, director of the Duke-NUS Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme, said Singapore had three things in its favour - it was small, had an effective government and had learnt many lessons from Sars.

"The Singapore government is doing its best," said Prof Wang, one of the most recognised international experts on emerging zoonotic viruses, who currently serves on multiple WHO committees on the coronavirus.

Singapore has acted to control the outbreak on multiple fronts. Researchers are working to develop quicker diagnostic kits and a possible vaccine, while the Government has implemented a slew of measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2020, with the headline 'February 'pivotal to how big outbreak will be''. Print Edition | Subscribe