Experts from the World Health Organization praised China’s efforts to fight an outbreak of COVID-19 after returning from a fact-finding mission, but say the rest of the world isn’t prepared if the virus spreads.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Canadian head of the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, shared his team’s findings at a press conference Tuesday.
His big takeaway: the world isn’t ready for an outbreak. “But it can get ready very fast.”
Here’s what the team said they learned while in China.
1. The outbreak seems to have peaked in China
China’s efforts, which included quarantining millions of people, seem to have helped to get the outbreak under control, Aylward said. “It’s the unanimous assessment of the team that they have changed the course of this outbreak.
“What was a rapidly-escalating outbreak has plateaued and then come down faster than one would have expected if we had looked at the natural dynamics of an outbreak like this. And that’s striking.”
At a press conference Monday, WHO’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it appears as though the outbreak in China peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and “has been declining steadily since then.”
2. China’s actions may have prevented many COVID-19 cases
While he didn’t comment on the human rights issues that have been raised by China’s quarantines, Aylward believes that China has prevented huge numbers of cases of COVID-19, according to the WHO’s estimates.
“Hundreds of thousands of people in China did not get COVID-19 because of this aggressive response.”
By cutting back the number of cases in the epicentre of the outbreak, he said, China also likely slowed its spread to other countries.
“That was the other big thing we heard again and again from anyone in China was, ‘It’s our responsibility to do this for the world.’”
3. It seems like there aren’t vast numbers of undetected cases
One of the big worries about this virus has been whether there are lots of asymptomatic, or “sub-clinical” cases — people with symptoms so mild they never see a doctor.
While this is good for these people, many experts worried that healthy-seeming people might unintentionally spread the disease.
Aylward said he didn’t see much evidence that this is happening.
Authorities in Wuhan have been going house to house to check people’s temperatures, he said. “They’re probably not missing a huge, huge amount.”
“With asymptomatics, it doesn’t look like that’s a big part of the picture. There was just no data that supports that.”
It’s a new disease and authorities will have to do more testing to be sure, he said, but he doesn’t believe that there is a huge number of uncounted cases.
It looks like around 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases have mild symptoms, he said. About 13 per cent have severe symptoms, and six per cent of people are in critical condition.
4. The rest of the world needs to get ready
Even if it’s true that there aren’t a lot of undetected COVID-19 cases, Aylward thinks that countries around the world need to prepare for outbreaks.
Arguing about whether COVID-19 is a pandemic or not is beside the point, he said.
“Why don’t you look at, have you got 100 beds where you can isolate people if you have to? Have you got a wing of a hospital that you’re going to close off? Have you got 30 ventilators?”
The world is “simply not ready” right now, he said.
Aside from making sure they have the medical supplies and staff to deal with an outbreak, governments should even ramp up simple public health campaigns like handwashing, he said.
“Those things that we should be doing anyway should be at scale in countries because they will make a difference to the spread of a respiratory borne disease.”