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Q&A: WHO representative addresses China's new virus outbreak

BEIJING (AP) — Shortly before authorities closed off the Chinese city at the epicenter of an outbreak of a new virus, the World Health Organization sent a team led by country representative Gauden Galea to check conditions on the ground in Wuhan, an inland city of more than 11 million people.

The five-member team on Monday and Tuesday visited a local biosafety lab, a branch of China’s Center for Disease Control, a hospital retrofitted with increased safety protocols and the airport. Galea spoke with health care workers, epidemiology inspectors and city officials who described and demonstrated how authorities are tracking, treating and combating the disease.

The Associated Press interviewed Galea at the WHO office in Beijing on Thursday. Q: CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE SITUATION ON THE GROUND RIGHT NOW IN WUHAN? A: It was very important for us to understand what was the extent of the outbreak and to get a bit of local color on the reports. It’s one thing looking at dry tables and presentations, it’s another thing to see it on the ground and meeting the front-line workers and getting their own experience of the outbreak. ... The situation has changed a lot already.

Q: TO CONTAIN AN OUTBREAK, IS THIS KIND OF TRAVEL BAN USUALLY EFFECTIVE? WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS AND SOME OF THE PITFALLS? A: To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science. It has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work. If this is happening we will note carefully to what extent it is maintained and how long it can take. There are pros and cons to such a decision. Such a decision obviously has social and economic impacts that are considerable. On the other hand, it demonstrates a very strong public health commitment and a willingness to take dramatic action. It sends a message to Wuhan, to China and to the rest of the countries. It remains to be seen what it’s effect will be.

Q: WERE YOU ABLE TO SEE HOW MANY PATIENTS WERE LOCATED AT THE HOSPITAL? DID IT SEEM LIKE THE RESOURCES WERE OVERWHELMED? A: The numbers of cases being handled are indeed quite large. The hospital that we attended, Zhongnan Hospital ... had construction put in place since the epidemic was identified in order to be able to provide the right patient flows, the right triage for patients with fever. So that they all go through one direction and there isn’t a mixture of patients. There’s rapid identification of whether this is a known case with some condition that is more conventionally treated and whether this is a suspect case. These flows and procedures were demonstrated to us and we have to say that the example we have seen is very much good practice.

We have to commend the health care workers that we met, who are extremely well-informed, correctly using procedures and personal protective equipment, who are very optimistic – cautious but optimistic – in their dealings both with us and with the patients that we saw being processed.

Q: WE'VE SEEN MODELING AND EXPERTS SAYING THAT THERE WILL EVENTUALLY BE THOUSANDS OF CASES. HOW SERIOUS IS THIS GOING TO GET? A: The numbers of cases are not in themselves a measure of seriousness. ... One of the patterns that we have seen is that as milder cases are detected, there has been a reduction in the percentage of the rate of people dying but it is too early to reach a full conclusion.

We are now daily hearing of massive increases in the numbers. Part of that increase is coming from the processing of specimens earlier. Another part is a broadening of the case definition. So numbers are going to increase. Even if they are in the thousands, this would not surprise us. That is not an indicator of seriousness. Indeed it is very, very good to get and identify as many cases as possible.

Associated Press writer Yanan Wang contributed to this report.

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