Coronavirus not a pandemic yet; don’t panic, say experts

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on February 25, 2020 Published on February 25, 2020

Health professionals call for country-specific preparedness plan, emphasis on hygiene

Even as the WHO holds back from calling the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak a ‘pandemic’, experts urge health authorities to have a ‘preparedness plan’, rather than panic.

The spread of Covid-19 is being reported out of countries such as Korea, Iran and Italy, where containment efforts include complete lock-downs. The global number of cases has crossed 80,000 and rising, with over 2,600 deaths, largely in China.

While the WHO has already called the Covid-19 outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”, labelling it a ‘pandemic’ would scale up the risk perception another notch in terms of spread and severity of the infection. And this would bring on greater containment action that would affect travel and trade, explain public health experts, calling for governments to come up with a calm-headed contingency plan.

What’s different

“We are overly hyping something we should be prepared for,” Gagandeep Kang, Executive Director with the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, told BusinessLine. There have been seven pandemics of different strains of cholera across the world over the past 200 years. “But it doesn’t get the hype that a respiratory infection (like Covid-19) does because the outbreaks are localised and spread slowly,” she explained.

Kang is the Vice-Chairperson of CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global alliance that finances and coordinates the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases. Though a vaccine is many months away, she said, CEPI has funded four projects and is looking at additional ones this week.

Containment efforts worked in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, she said. The country contained the infection and gave the rest of the world time to prepare mitigation strategies. This included strengthening lab testing capabilities, outlining management protocols, running clinical trials on possible vaccine candidates or re-purposed drugs and having a surveillance programme to track its spread, she added.

‘Cough hygiene’

Calling for greater personal hygiene awareness and planning in the event of an outbreak in the neighbourhood, Kang said people particularly need to practise ‘cough hygiene’, or covering one’s mouth while coughing. Other measures include staying about 10 feet away from a person with a bad cough and cold, washing hands frequently, and not touching one’s face, nose or eyes, as that could pass on the virus that spreads through droplets from an infected person.

Responding to concerns that people could pass the virus even before they showed symptoms, Kang said an individual was most infectious when he/she had the symptoms. The infection was handleable in at least 80 per cent of the cases and the mild ones could be managed, she said. People need to not panic and instead take basic steps to plan their lives, work and possible health follow-ups in the event of an infection, she added.

Country strategy

G Arunkumar, Director with the Manipal Institute of Virology (under MAHE), called for country-specific strategies in terms of detecting and treating the infection.

Infections may have come into India before travel restrictions are in place, he said, urging the government to have sentinel hospitals to check and trace the source of pneumonia infections. While travel restrictions are in place for countries with hotspots of the infection, he said, the next worry is when infections are reported from West Asia, for instance, since much travel happens between that region and India.

Published on February 25, 2020
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