COVID-19 SPECIAL

Why infectious diseases expert has not hugged daughter in two months

Professor Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School, working at home while on self-imposed home quarantine after a visit to Wuhan, China.
Professor Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School, working at home while on self-imposed home quarantine after a visit to Wuhan, China.PHOTO: COURTESY OF WANG LINFA

As a scientist who studies infectious diseases, Professor Wang Linfa knows all too well how much safe distancing and personal hygiene count, when it comes to keeping illnesses at bay during a pandemic.

In fact, the director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Medical School has been practising such measures long before the Government started issuing recommendations for people to keep their distance from others, so as to reduce the chances of more people being infected with the virus causing Covid-19.

For example, after visiting Wuhan, China - the first epicentre of the current outbreak - as part of a team of scientists learning more about the virus in mid-January, Prof Wang put himself on home quarantine, even though there was no requirement for him to do so then.

He was a member of the Emergency Committee convened by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that debated the WHO's stance on the coronavirus during the early stages of the outbreak.

Even now, he is also trying to put into practice new habits - such as avoiding contact with people, even family members, and reducing time spent outside his home or laboratory.

"I haven't hugged my daughter in two months," he told The Straits Times on Monday, after a panel discussion hosted by the newspaper on how people were the first line of defence against the spread of the coronavirus.

Prof Wang said that life, as well as his work in the laboratory, must go on even during an outbreak.

And to ensure that this was possible, it was crucial that his team took the appropriate safety precautions.

Prof Wang has for decades been studying bat-borne viruses, by scrutinising their genetic code and the virus-bat interaction, among other aspects of biology.

The coronavirus causing Covid-19 is believed to have originated from bats.

He explained: "If one member of my team gets infected, everyone has to be quarantined, and all the tests we're doing have to stop for at least two weeks."

 
 
 
 

While there are business continuity plans in place, with researchers divided into two teams, it was still important for them to take care of their health because one team in quarantine would mean half the manpower left to do the research.

Prof Wang added: "I beg my team... I mean, they are young people, they're working day and night, and they ask me if they can go out for a drink. But I tell them, 'just drink by yourself'."

Prof Wang was one of four panellists involved in the discussion on how personal hygiene and cleanliness were key to tackling the current outbreak.

The other three were Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources; Mr Tai Ji Choong, director of the National Environment Agency's Department of Public Cleanliness; and Mr Edward D'Silva, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council.

During the discussion, the panellists emphasised how people were the first line of defence against the further spread of the virus, with social graces and personal cleanliness now no longer just matters of preference or civic-mindedness.

Mr Masagos, who also chairs the newly formed SG Clean Taskforce that aims to raise hygiene standards at the national level, stressed that other measures, such as border controls and quarantine, would not be as effective in combating the outbreak if personal hygiene was neglected.

The virus is spread mainly through respiratory droplets.

Despite stepped-up cleaning and disinfection routines by premise managers, panellists said individuals could also reduce the chances of the virus spreading by picking up after themselves.

This includes disposing of used tissue paper - or small biohazards, as Mr Masagos calls them - instead of leaving them for others to do so, and returning trays and used cutlery so there is less chance of the contaminants coming into contact with others.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2020, with the headline 'Why infectious diseases expert has not hugged daughter in two months'. Print Edition | Subscribe