Story at a glance

  • Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s Emergency Programs, told STAT news that the fast-spreading coronavirus can be contained.
  • He stated that the virus is moving fast, but not as fast as previous coronaviruses like SARS.
  • While praising China’s efforts, Ryan says we need to be ‘laser-focused on containment.’

In an interview with STAT news, Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Emergencies Program, said that containing the spread of the coronavirus isn’t out of the question. He recommends that “until [containment] isn’t possible, we should keep trying.”

Just last Thursday, WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.

Ryan pointed out that there is evidence that the disease may not be spreading as quickly as anticipated. Ryan also casts doubt on the report that infected individuals are contagious before showing symptoms. 

Dispelling this notion, he asserted that data collected from WHO suggests that infected individuals who were classified as ‘asymptomatic’ may have actually been showing symptoms. 

“We still believe, looking at the data, that the force of infection here, the major driver, is people who are symptomatic, unwell and transmitting to others along the human-to-human route,” he said in the interview. “That is the pressure wave.”

Ryan also praises these efforts and China’s tenacious response to the virus’s sudden onset, noting that the country has given the world “precious lead time.” Wuhan, the original epicenter of the outbreak, and 16 other cities in China are quarantined, which is impacting approximately 50 million people.

However, things could take a turn at any moment. 

That is not to say that the disease won’t get ahead of the Chinese authorities completely or get ahead of the other countries that are containing it,” Ryan told STAT, “But there’s enough evidence to suggest that this virus can still be contained.”

Data studies in China looked at the rate at which people infected with the virus spread it to others in shared household.  Ryan said that although the rate is not high, the studies cannot act as representative of a widespread illness.

Additionally, the coronavirus doesn’t appear to be spreading form patient to health care workers, as seen with the previous severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses, and citizens returning home from China don’t appear to be spreading it further. 

The total number of infected individuals in China has risen to about 17,000, putting hospitals and medical supplies under strain. The virus has claimed 361 lives so far. 

Ryan acknowledges this, saying that there are “clear indications” that the virus is spreading, but that it is not spreading at a dangerously fast pace the way SARS did. He did say that it is “unusual” to see a disease move this quickly, with the vast majority located in China and around 133 located outside China. 

Ryan noted that the majority of victims were in their 40s, male and suffered preexisting conditions. 

He also warned STAT that officials are careful not to raise the emergency level to a pandemic, or a global outbreak. 

“If that becomes the discussion, then we’re all going to lose focus,” Ryan insisted. “We have to remain laser-focused on containment and slowing down the spread of disease.”

Published on Feb 03, 2020