Wuhan virus: February will be pivotal in determining success of containment efforts, says expert

The new coronavirus outbreak has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH
The new coronavirus outbreak has been declared a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization. ST PHOTO: MARCELLIN LOPEZ

SINGAPORE - The weeks ahead will be pivotal for scientists looking to determine the severity and virulence of the novel coronavirus originating from Wuhan, infectious diseases expert Peter Piot said on Friday (Jan 31).

"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, a Belgian microbiologist who co-discovered the Ebola virus, told The Straits Times in an interview.

This is the period when those who had visited China for the Chinese New Year break would return to their base countries, potentially increasing 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.

It was for this very reason that the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday (Jan 30) declared the new coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

However, Prof Piot, who is in Singapore to meet local scientists for discussions unrelated to the latest outbreak, said the Republic had fewer reasons to worry.

He said that while it took WHO some time before it declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus an emergency, the international community - including Singapore - did not wait to act.

"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 particular," said Prof Piot, referring to the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed nearly 800 people worldwide.

The total death toll in the current epidemic now stands at 213.

While many unknowns still remain about the novel coronavirus, preliminary data suggests that while the Wuhan virus seems to spread more easily compared with Sars, it appears to be less deadly.

As of Jan 30, the number of reported Wuhan cases (8,149) had already exceeded the number of Sars cases (8,096).

"There has been a big difference in the way the countries have moved to control the outbreak of the virus," said Prof Piot. "I would say that the measures that have been put in place... are the right approach."

China has placed Wuhan - the city at the centre of the outbreak - on lockdown, and many nations have evacuated their residents out of China in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

In Singapore, the Government has implemented a raft of measures to curb the spread. This includes, among others, implementing a compulsory 14-day leave of absence for students and workers in certain sectors who have returned from mainland China, as well as announcing plans to distribute masks to all households here.

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong added that Singapore was evaluating what should be done next following the latest WHO assessment.


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