Too early to know if China lockdown effective in limiting coronavirus spread: experts

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As health authorities work to contain the quick-spreading new coronavirus that has caused panic internationally, Chinese officials continue to impose restrictive travel measures.

Last week, China announced the first round of drastic containment efforts, suspending plane, train and bus links to Wuhan — a city of 11 million people believed to be the epicentre of the outbreak.

Now, the lockdown has expanded to 17 cities, encompassing more than 50 million people.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong announced additional restrictions, saying the region would be cutting all rail links to mainland China.

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According to figures released by China early Tuesday, more than 4,500 people were sickened with the virus on the country’s mainland.

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The new strain of coronavirus has now killed 106 people. The majority of the fatalities have been in China’s Hubei province.

Are these stringent travel restrictions and mass quarantines an effective way of limiting the spread of infectious viruses?

Here’s what experts say.

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First coronavirus case confirmed in Canada, second case presumed

Is it effective?

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases faculty member at the University of Toronto, said restricting travel to this extent is “unprecedented.”

While similar lockdown attempts have been made — including in areas of Liberia during the ebola epidemic and worldwide during the H1N1 virus outbreak — Bogoch said none had been proven successful.
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But will the restrictions be effective in China? Bogoch says it’s still too early to tell.

“I don’t think anyone can look you in the eye and tell you with a straight face whether or not this will work or will not work, because we’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said.

Bogoch said the restrictions could slow the epidemic down and reduce the risk of transmission outside of the most heavily affected areas.

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“It enables health units and clinical units to care for ill individuals and really prevent further spread of this infection throughout China,” he said.

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But he said the virus may already be “beyond containment at this point.”

“I think a major question is, ‘What is the extent of the illness in other parts of China?’ and I don’t think we have real answers to that question yet,” Bogoch said.

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Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University, said he was shocked to hear of the lockdown, saying it reminded him of something “we might see in movies.”

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He said travel bans often don’t work because people who want to get out will find a way, undermining the whole idea of a quarantine.

“But from a scientific perspective, the travel ban in China is really intriguing,” he said. “If people are compliant and if there’s a way to enforce it and to provide food to 20 million people, maybe it could work. I guess we’ll find out soon.”

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Is it ethical?

Kerry Bowman, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, agreed that it’s too early to know it it’s an effective strategy, but said it does raise some ethical concerns.

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“From an ethical point of view, if there are healthy people, which there obviously are, caught up within quarantined areas, you elevate their risk of succumbing to the virus,” he said. “So there could be people within the quarantine zone that are perfectly healthy that could, in fact, be exposed to the virus.”

He said China is struggling to get a “very difficult situation under control” and will make decisions to benefit the largest number of people.

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“There’s profound cultural differences between how we would look at ethical decisions like this in the West and how China would look at them,” he said. “So China is making a very pragmatic decision.”

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Bowman said that in Canada, travel restrictions on this level would likely never happen, “mostly from a civil rights point of view.”

“We look at people’s rights — do we really have the right to quarantine so many people?” he said. “And likely we would say no.”

Hoffman said such broad and extreme quarantine measures would be a “restriction on people’s rights that are not justifiable,” and would violate Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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“In the Canadian context, it’s inconceivable,” he said.

What’s Canada doing?

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne confirmed on Monday that 176 registered Canadian citizens remained in the quarantined region in China, including Wuhan.

In a statement on Sunday, Champagne said Canada is providing assistance to Canadians on the ground, and that consular officials were “closely monitoring” the situation.

Several countries, including the United States, Japan, Mongolia and France, were preparing on Tuesday to evacuate their citizens, but Canada has not yet announced any similar plans.

However, late Monday evening, Travel Canada updated its advice for travellers, saying Canadians should “avoid all travel” to Hubei.

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Meanwhile, within Canada, health officials have confirmed one case of the virus, and have identified two additional “presumptive” cases that are awaiting results from laboratory testing.

Despite the infections, federal health officials said the risk to Canadians remains low.

– With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

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