Canadian doctor in charge of WHO’s coronavirus team headed to China

WHO calls for improved data-sharing on coronavirus, to send experts to China
WATCH: WHO calls for improved data-sharing on coronavirus, to send experts to China

An advance team of international experts led by the World Health Organization (WHO) has left for Beijing on Sunday to help investigate China’s coronavirus epidemic.

In charge of the specially picked team is Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert.

Aylward, who grew up in Newfoundland, joined the WHO in 1992 and has worked for years in immunization, communicable diseases control and polio eradication. He completed medical training at Memorial University in St. John’s, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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The international mission came about after WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping and Chinese ministers in late January.

But it has taken nearly two weeks to get the government’s green light on its composition, which was not announced, other than to say that Aylward was heading it.

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“Bruce and his colleagues will be working with their Chinese counterparts to make sure we have the right expertise on the team to answer the right questions,” Tedros told a news conference.

“We hope the rest of the team will join them as soon as possible. The team could range between 10 and 15,” he said, giving no details on their identities.

There have been 40,235 confirmed cases reported in China and 909 deaths, he said.

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Tedros voiced concern at limited incidents, reported by European authorities at the weekend, of person-to-person spread of the virus by people with no history of travel to China.

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“In recent days, we have seen some concerning instances of onward transmission from people with no travel history to China, like the cases reported in France yesterday and the United Kingdom today,” he said.

“The detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire. But for now it’s only a spark. Our objective remains containment.”

Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies expert, asked about an international business meeting held at a Singapore hotel on Jan 20-22, said it did not appear to have spread the virus widely.

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“No, I think it is way too early and much more of an exaggeration to consider the Singapore conference event a ‘super-spreading event’,” Ryan said.

There are about 40 confirmed cases in Singapore, including 21 associated with import from China and 19 locally acquired with no history of travel, he said.

“The Singapore conference cluster has 12 cases associated with it. Those 5 in France, the 3 in Singapore itself, and then (South) Korea, Malaysia and the United Kingdom,” Ryan added, noting that those figures were in the single digits.

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“So are we not dealing here with a super-spreading event, people are comparing it to the Amoy Gardens or to the Metropole hotel,” he said, referring to the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003.

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Tedros urged countries to take public health measures to help “prevent a bigger fire,” adding: “This is a message for the whole world. This is a common enemy that we can only defeat if we do it in unison.”

— with Global News files