Effective quarantine is essential for tackling the coronavirus and this cannot happen without extensive testing for covid-19, says World Health Organization assistant director general Bruce Aylward.
“To actually stop the virus, [China] had to do rapid testing of any suspect case, immediate isolation of anyone who was a confirmed or suspected case, and then quarantine the close contacts for 14 days so that they could figure out if any of them were infected,” Aylward told in an exclusive interview. “Those were the measures that stopped transmission in China, not the big travel restrictions and lockdowns.”
His comments come after the UK government announced that it would now only test for covid-19 among people admitted to hospital, and that people with mild symptoms wouldn’t be tested but should stay at home for seven days.
“In some countries they’re not even testing them. They’re saying if you have a cough and high fever, stay at home,” says Aylward. “But the problem then is that they don’t know that they have the disease, they haven’t had it confirmed. After a couple of days people get bored, go out for a walk and go shopping and get other people infected. If you know you’re infected you’re more likely to isolate yourself.”
This is a particular problem with covid-19 because up to 80 per cent of those infected may have only mild or moderate symptoms. “If those people are all out of hospital, most of your cases are at home, but not isolated,” says Aylward. “In China, they found that didn’t work. They had to get them isolated in hospitals or dormitories or stadiums. The main goal was to keep them from getting bored.”
According to Aylward, several countries have responded well to the coronavirus outbreak. “South Korea have been pretty rigorous about testing all the suspect cases and finding all the contacts. In the last couple of days, they seem to have turned a corner.”
“Singapore has been hit with importations [of cases] again and again, and they’re jumping on them, tracing all the cases, tracing all the contacts, professionally isolating them all,” says Aylward.
But Aylward wouldn’t be drawn on the UK’s strategy, which has been criticised by some scientists. “People have different reasons for taking different measures at different times in an outbreak,” he says. “Chris [Whitty, chief medical adviser to the UK] is one of the brightest, most sensible and careful people I know. I’m not going to second-guess anybody at this time.”