Too early to say if Wuhan virus worse than SARS crisis: Lawrence Wong

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
(L-R) Singapore's Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong and Education Minister Ong Ye Kung at a press conference on the latest developments with regard to the spread of the Wuhan, at the Ministry of Communications and Information on Monday, 27 January 2020. PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore

SINGAPORE — As Singapore is still at an early stage of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, it is too early to tell if the situation is worse than the SARS pandemic of 2003, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (27 January).

Addressing reporters at the Ministry of Communications and Information, Wong said, “It’s still too early to tell at this stage of the virus outbreak. Medical experts tell us, as of now, the virus is not as infectious as SARS, fatality rates are lower…but the situation is evolving so quickly.”

“As you all heard from the Chinese health authorities yesterday…the virus is getting stronger, the number of infections is likely to rise. So I think we just have to be psychologically prepared that this can get worse than SARS.”

Wong, who co-chairs a multi-agency taskforce on the virus outbreak with Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, was responding to a question on how well-prepared the Republic is to handle the Wuhan virus outbreak, and how it compares with the SARS crisis.

In 2003, some 238 people in Singapore were infected with SARS, of whom 33 died, amid a global epidemic. To date, there have been four confirmed cases of the Wuhan virus in Singapore, with almost 100 suspected cases.

Three major measures

At the press conference, Wong announced “three major moves” the government is taking to further contain the outbreak.

Firstly, a travel advisory has been issued to defer all non-essential travel to the rest of China with immediate effect. It had previously only applied to Hubei province, where the virus originated. Wong noted that the Chinese government itself has described the situation as “grave” and that the infection is getting stronger.

Secondly, thermal scanners will be used to cover all incoming flights into Changi Airport, not just for flights from China, as travellers may have transited through other countries. “For inbound flights from China, we will forward deploy healthcare teams at the aero bridges to identify passengers who look unwell, because fever may not be present for all cases,” said Wong.

“Additionally, we will pay attention to PRC travellers holding China passports issued in Hubei. ICA will pull them aside if they are holding such passports, ensure that they are well and get them to provide all their contact details and we will continue to keep watch while they are in Singapore.”

Thirdly, as Singaporeans return from China after the Lunar New Year holiday, students and teachers alike will be given a leave of absence for 14 days, in order to prevent any possible spread of the disease. This measure will apply in three sectors: healthcare, education and eldercare.

These will be put in place for all government-operated and government-funded entities, said Wong, while agencies would follow up with private employers to implement these measures. “For the other sectors, we would strongly encourage employers to keep a close watch on their returning employees and take a risk-based approach “with measures such as telecommuting”, depending on the nature of the work.

Among other measures, three hostels at National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and Singapore Management University have also been designated as government quarantine facilities. Chalets in the east and north have already been designated for the same purpose.

Asked how many individuals the government has planned to potentially quarantine, Wong stressed that this was merely part of a contingency plan. He added. “If the numbers go up, we will have sufficient quarantine facilities to contain the situation.”

‘Do not do unto others’

In his opening remarks, Wong said, “The government will do everything we can to protect Singapore and Singaporeans, but this does not mean overreacting or turning xenophobic.” 

In neighbouring Malaysia, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for Chinese nationals to be barred from entering the country, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. In the Republic, some 50,000 people have signed a similar petition as of Monday afternoon to “temporarily stop” Chinese nationals and travellers from China from entering the country.

In this regard, Yahoo News Singapore asked if the government was concerned about such views taking root here. “We know that these sentiments may emerge,” replied Wong.