WHO coronavirus team at ground zero in Wuhan to work out next containment step

·4-min read

A team of public health experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has arrived in the central Chinese city of Wuhan – ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak – to determine the next step in containing the epidemic.

In a brief statement on Saturday, China’s National Health Commission said some Chinese and foreign experts from the joint inspection team visited Wuhan, holding talks with the local health authority and visiting relevant healthcare institutions.

Wuhan was originally not on the team’s itinerary, but was added on Friday as the United Nations health agency warned that the “window of opportunity” for containment was “narrowing”.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged governments around the world to remain vigilant amid signs of local transmission in various countries.

“The cases that we see in the rest of the world, although the numbers are small, but not linked to Wuhan or China, it’s very worrisome,” Tedros said. “This outbreak could go in any direction … If we do well, we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity, then we will have a serious problem on our hands.”

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The UN team – comprising specialists from the United States, Germany, Japan, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore and South Korea – arrived in China last weekend, and visited Beijing, and the provinces of Guangdong and Sichuan.

The NHC said on Saturday that the team had met top Chinese respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan in Guangdong, and visited the centre for disease control and prevention in Guangdong and the city of Shenzhen, and Sichuan.

The specialists also discussed quarantine measures, the wild animal trade and community prevention measures with their Chinese counterparts, according to the commission.

Earlier, mainland Chinese media reported that authorities in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, were at a critical stage in the fight against the coronavirus and might not have the capacity to handle a visit from the UN team.

US officials had also previously expressed concern over China’s lack of response to their offers in early January to send experts to the mainland.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Washington-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said it was important for the team to see conditions on the ground and to offer advice.

“Fact-finding is important, especially doing risk assessments and evaluating the situation on the ground, and helping other countries better prepare for this outbreak,” Huang said.

“But in the meantime, I think they could do more in terms of helping China, for example, evaluate the effectiveness of containment measures, to guide their Chinese counterparts, the treatment protocols, helping them identify the origin of the virus.”

David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the WHO team aimed to collect information from various sites in China to “try to make sense of what’s going on and try to answer the unknowns”.

“They’ll also be looking at the number of asymptomatic and other types of infection to better understand the mortality ratio in China,” he said.

“Clearly China has been very transparent and open in sharing its data … they’re sharing it very well and they opened up all of their files with the WHO present.”

Arnold Monto, professor of public health at the University of Michigan’s epidemiology department, said the most pressing goal was containment of the disease rather than looking at how it began.

The WHO delegation would be seeking to learn more about how effective China’s strict travel restrictions and mass quarantines had been in containing the epidemic, he said.

“The other thing we will learn is how much hospital transmission is occurring,” he said. “In 2003, that’s one of the great sources of infection to the community, and now we learned our lesson because we realised that a transmission really is very effective from a very sick patient … to a health worker, and now a lot is going to be dependent on supplies and ability to protect them.

“We’ll learn more about how that is taking place, but the key thing is to try to separate out how much, how severe this really is.”

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui and Bhavan Jaipragas

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