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Backgrounder: COVID-19 outbreak

Nancy Xie

By Nancy Xie

Director, Government Relations, FII China

February 20, 2020

The COVID-19 is the seventh type of Corona Virus discovered in the World so far that are pathogenic to humans. Unlike MERS and SARS, or the H1N1 flu, statistics show that the death rate of the new virus is significantly lower.

However, clinical observation indicates that its incubation period for showing fever and pneumonic symptoms could take as long as two weeks, with an average of three days. What does this mean?

Imagine someone travelling around, going to meetings, gathering with family members, or merely walking on a street full of people for two weeks without knowing that he has contracted a virus that could be spread by a single cough or sneeze?

An infected individual could travel around the World in 72 hours but still not show any symptoms, yet everyone who’s been in the same space with this person or had been near is at high risk. Therefore, the longer the incubation period, the easier a virus spreads.

Although the reported death rate of the new virus is not as high as other more lethal types of coronaviruses, it could still be fatal for seniors and people who already suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or asthma, because their immune systems are more fragile, which requires great attention.

The first case of the virus was diagnosed on January 2 in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province, and at the time, doctors were still not certain if the virus could achieve human-to-human transmission because the source of the virus was tested on wild animals. This did not take long to confirm as cases started to grow exponentially.

The DNA chain of the new virus is 80% similar to the SARS virus in 2003, patients demonstrated similar clinical symptoms, they had similar transmission methods, even the time of the outbreak happened around the same time period, which is right before the Chinese New Year (CNY).

This presents a huge epidemic control challenge for the Chinese government. Every year the “CNY transportation rush” is reported to receive a passenger volume of almost three billion travelling back and forth their home towns for this most important annual celebration of the Chinese people.

This number is a horror story when it comes to trying to stop a fast-spreading, long incubation period, highly contagious virus. Hubei province, being an important economic centre and transportation hub for Central China, makes it even more terrifyingly possible to become a national pandemic and eventually a World pandemic.

The Chinese government is doing everything it can, mobilizing all available resources to stop the virus from spreading, sometimes even at the stake of compromising the country’s economy. Here are a few very effective actions to control the pandemic from my observations living in China:

  • China was able to map out the DNA Chain of the COVID-19 within a week of its outbreak and shared this information immediately with the WHO in order to facilitate the production of nucleic acid testing kits and confirming suspected cases of diagnosis expected to arise around the World. .
  • This year’s CNY was on January 25, the Chinese government announced the closure of Hubei Province on January 23, barred all travelling in and out of the province, except for medical teams from around the country sent to support pandemic control.
  • From Central, Provincial, and municipal governments, down to district, county, village, and residents’ committee, all levels of governments actively took stringent measures to minimize people gathering, travelling, or any person-to-person contact.
  • The original start date after coming back from CNY holidays was Feburary 1, most cities have postponed starting work by two weeks, and schools will not restart until May.
  • The Chinese government made a 24/7 channel available to deliver transparent media communications on statistics such as confirmed cases, suspected cases, severe cases and the death toll of each province and region. Reports on treatment options, medication advancements and vaccination research, among all relevant news on combatting the virus are broadcasted real-time on all media networks.
  • Each province and region sent their most sophisticated and experienced respiratory experts and medical teams to support Hubei Province. The Chinese army also sent three batches of 4000 army doctors and nurses to Hubei. These medical teams account for almost 11,000 people, and they were the only ones travelling to Hubei during the CNY.

The above measures effectively controlled the extensive outbreak of the virus around the country and minimized its expansion internationally. However, the most demanding work is still to treat and accommodate the rapid growth of confirmed cases within Wuhan and surrounding areas, where the virus was first found.