COVID-19: WHO mission chief says China’s measures likely averted hundreds of thousands of coronavirus cases

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Citing on-the-ground evidence that new cases of COVID-19 — the illness caused by the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV — have declined in China by 80% in recent weeks, the leader of a World Health Organization-appointed team of international experts that traveled there in search of answers on the virus, its impacts and resources needed to contain it, said today that Chinese officials “aggressive” responses “probably” averted hundreds of thousands of cases.

In addition to the swift development of diagnostic tools and use of internet technology to accelerate access to treatment, those responses included what WHO mission chief Dr. Bruce Aylward called an “all-government, all-society approach,” that, in turn has included locking down cities of 15 million people, bringing lives and commerce to a halt for weeks across the world’s most populous country.

The team’s conclusions and recommendations come amid signs that China’s COVID-19 epidemic peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2, and has steadily declined since, according to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a briefing today, while sharply rising numbers of new cases — including in Iran, in Italy,  and in South Korea,  indicate that outbreaks of the virus are eluding control in other countries. Cases in African and Latin American countries with more limited health resources and high volumes of travel to and from China have yet to be detected, officials have noted, and will pose still more challenges. The team of experts returned with recommendations for China, affected countries globally, and countries yet to be affected.

Upon the team’s arrival in China on February 10, Dr. Aylward said, new cases in China were reported at a rate of about 2,500 a day. By the time of the group’s departure today the country is seeing 416 cases. Noting that criteria for counting cases has varied — with, at one point laboratory confirmed case counts being combined with numbers of “clinically confirmed” cases, that were suspected, but not confirmed through testing of patient samples, and case counts later once again being presented separately, Dr. Aylward cited evidence that the impacts of the epidemic are diminishing. Those included available hospital beds for the first time in weeks, and a shortage of recruits for ongoing trials of the antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment for the virus. In addition, in the face of greatly heightened efforts to spread word of the virus and make testing available, fewer people are showing up in clinics.

China, Dr. Aylward said, had taken “an old approach and turbo-charged it with modern science and technology.” The old approach was one dating back centuries, stopping movement to and from affected areas to stop the spread of yellow fever and other outbreaks. It came at a cost, Dr. Aylward noted, recalling an earlier visit to the travel hub Wuhan city  in central China two decades ago. A modern city of soaring buildings and bustling activity, then, he found the city silent “a ghost town” on this visit, he said.

But the cost had not been wasted, he said. “What China has demonstrated,” he said, “is you have to do this.”

What “this” is, he said, may vary, with “aggressive” approaches apparently paramount, but to be tailored to countries’ unique characteristics — “not necessarily full lockdowns.”

The global community, however, Dr. Aylward warned is “not ready with the mindset or the materials.” That, he said, includes the need to prioritize research, focusing on the most promising areas with the greatest likelihood of success — including more resources for trials of remdesivir.

Stay tuned for more on the team’s 22 recommendations.

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