At least 'moderate' risk of COVID-19 evolving into global epidemic: expert

By Bai Yunyi and Zhao Juecheng Published: 2020/2/17 1:47:25

A staff member checks passengers' body temperature before their departure for Wuhan at the airport counter of Spring Airlines at Tokyo International Airport in Tokyo, Japan, Jan 31, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

The risk of a large-scale coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak occurring outside of China and evolving into a global epidemic is at least "moderate," and the appearance of the virus in Singapore is a key indicator that reveals such risks, said Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. 

Compared with the SARS outbreak in 2003, the severity of COVID-19 would be milder but longer-lasting, which would have a more substantial social and economic impact, Bouey told the Global Times on Sunday. 

As Bouey explained, with the disease spreading to Singapore, it will be important to observe how it responds to a high-temperature environment. 

"I think it's too early to make such judgment that warmer weather would kill the coronavirus," Bouey said, noting that the number of cases has increased, which could be considered a community epidemic.  

Meanwhile, Singapore's health and medical system uses detailed trajectory tracking for each infected person. Should the outbreak continue, other countries and regions will face growing risks in community outbreaks, Bouey noted, who is also a professor of Global Health at Georgetown University.

In particular, Africa and Latin America are worrisome as they lack advanced infection tracking systems and whose public healthcare resources are incapable of containing the virus. If cluster infections occur in these regions, the situation could become more serious, Bouey noted. 

The latest statistics and analysis show that the severity of COVID-19 is lower than SARS in 2003, especially when considering fatality rates and patients who are severely infected, Bouey told the Global Times.

Bouey warned that the COVID-19 epidemic could last longer than SARS and consequently would have a bigger social and economic impact.

During a recent testimony at the US House of Representatives, Bouey noted that in addition to maintaining close collaboration with China within the scientific research sphere and providing further assistance within its capabilities, the US should create an information-sharing system and cooperation plan with China to prevent a large-scale global outbreak.

From vaccine research to virological classification to monitoring virus mutations, China and the US are at the forefront of the world, and "it is necessary to cooperate closely," Bouey said. 

Also, many developing countries do not have a healthcare system that could prevent the virus from spreading, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US and China's CDC should make joint efforts to help those countries  to prevent the virus from becoming global epidemic.

When the epidemic is under control, the US could help the Chinese government and the country's scientists to conduct research and assess its national response system and epidemic disease management, which would not only be beneficial to China but also for other countries that encounter similar problems. 

After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), some countries implemented travel restrictions, which could be seen as isolated protective measures. 

Bouey noted that on one side, such measures have considerable socioeconomic costs, which could not be considered from the sole perspective of a public health issue. And on the other side, such measures could not completely stop the spread of the virus. 

Even with full-scale isolation measures in place, it would only postpone and slow the pace of the spread to create more preparation time for public health systems and facilities instead of completely eliminating the risk. 

Countries have implemented travel bans for two reasons. First, they believe the virus has not yet arrived in their country, and second, the virus mainly comes from China, the expert noted. 

"However, these two points are difficult to identify," she said, adding that many infected people do not show any symptoms, which makes it impossible to determine if they are carrying the virus.  

Also, countries like Singapore and the UK have had infected people enter from other countries, and such travel bans give people "an illusion of security," which doesn't guarantee safety. 

"I hope governments will understand that, and properly inform the public to be prepared for the epidemic in the long run," Bouey said. 

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