- China’s decision to quarantine some 50 million people to stop the spread of a deadly coronavirus is an unprecedented “grand experiment” that could become potentially harmful, said the official who led the global fight against SARS in 2003.
- China has imposed the largest quarantine in human history by cutting off links to multiple cities, leaving people left behind worried and confused.
- Professor David Heymann, a former World Health Organisation executive, told reporters on Tuesday that China’s large-scale quarantine could inadvertently infect healthy people.
- It could end up aiding the spread of the virus to healthy people, he said.
- The WHO had already called the quarantine“unprecedented in public health history” and said it was unsure the measure could work.
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LONDON, England – The official who led the World Health Organisation’s global response to the 2003 SARS outbreak has described China’s quarantine of 50 million people to stop the spread of a deadly coronavirus as a “grand experiment” that has the potential to be harmful.
Professor David Heymann, the former executive director of communicable diseases at the WHO, on Tuesday described China’s decision to isolate a host of cities as unprecedented. He made his comments at a press briefing on the novel coronavirus at London’s Chatham House.
China cut off Wuhan – the 11 million-strong city where the virus originated – by shutting down its public transport system, train stations, and airport, on January 23. It has since extended the quarantine to at least 15 other cities as the death toll and number of infected grew.
“China is doing a great experiment to see if they can have an impact on the international spread and national spread by trying to quarantine,” Heymann said Tuesday.
The WHO has said since China’s first quarantine that it did not endorse this method of disease prevention.
Gauden Galea, the WHO’s China representative, told the Associated Press at the time: “It has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work.”
Galea also told Reuters: “The lockdown of 11 million people is unprecedented in public health history, so it is certainly not a recommendation the WHO has made.”
Quarantines have been used throughout history to try and control outbreaks, but not on this scale.
China’s decision to seal off so many people must come with the right monitoring tools to check that it’s actually helping slow the disease, Heymann said Tuesday.
“The only thing we can say about that is when you do a new intervention – and this is the 21st century, there may be new things to do – you must set up a system to monitor and evacuate,” he said.
He also said that such a quarantine can’t be taken as a guarantee that no one can leave, and that the potential for people to get around a quarantine has to be observed.
“It’s also important not to think that if you do [set up a quarantine], that you’ve set up a secure measure because there could be a false security in people just slipping out.”
Fei Chen, an urban-design lecturer at the University of Liverpool, previously told Business Insider’s Aria Bendix that shutting down a city’s transport links can significantly reduce the chances that people leave, but that there’s no way to completely seal off a city.
Some people have already been spotted leaving and entering Hubei province – where Wuhan is located – by foot over a bridge,Reuters reported Tuesday.
Healthy people could get sick in a quarantine
A large-scale quarantine could also end up aiding the spread of the virus to healthy people, Heymann said.
“If you’re not doing it properly, and you have a whole group of people together, and most of them are not infected and somebody is infected, then they might get infected,” he said. “So there is a downside.”
“You have to be very careful in your quarantine measures to make sure that you don’t do more damage than less damage.”
The coronavirus – which has so far killed 427 people, infected more than 20,000 people, and been found in 24 countries – can be spread from person to person.
Heymann said that a lot about how the disease transmits is still unknown, including how far away a person would need to be from someone infected in order for the virus to not reach them.
In Wuhan, residents began stockpiling food and fuel from the very first days of the quarantine, and have described empty streets and confusion amid a lack of information from local and national government.
The coronavirus – which targets the respiratory tract – is a cousin virus to SARS. Its mortality rate is understood to be much lower than that of SARS, though it is mutating and could turn into new forms even as researchers try to find a way to treat its current form.
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