Coronavirus: public education key to China’s fight, disease expert says

Holly Chik
·4-min read

China has done a better job than other countries to educate the public about disease prevention, helping to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control within its borders, according to top Chinese infectious disease expert Zhong Nanshan.

“It eased the public’s fear and helped people understand and follow pandemic control measures,” Zhong told an online medical forum hosted by Chinese tech giant Tencent.

“We launched a community-based control strategy to swiftly contain the virus outbreak. To a large extent, it’s a victory thanks to the efforts in spreading medical knowledge,” he said, adding that the need to improve the public’s understanding of science was the biggest lesson from the fight against Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

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Zhong said China’s biggest achievement in its battle with the virus was successfully preventing it from infecting more people in the community.

In the future, medical experts around the world needed to set up a mechanism for long-term cooperation, sharing their successes and failures to broaden the international base of knowledge, said Zhong, who played a pivotal role in China’s response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, crisis.

China was the first country to be hit by the coronavirus and responded by imposing a lockdown on the city of Wuhan, the first epicentre of the global pandemic, in late January. The disease is largely under control in China and authorities fight sporadic outbreaks with mass testing and contact tracing.

The country has reported more than 86,000 cases of Covid-19 and 4,600 deaths.

But while China’s prevention and control model against Covid-19 was successful at home, other countries might not be able to replicate it, another prominent Chinese infectious disease expert said at the same event.

Zhang Wenhong, head of Shanghai’s Covid-19 clinical expert team, said China got ahead of the coronavirus and controlled sporadic outbreaks with widespread medical monitoring and detection.

“It took two months to prove that our [lockdown] method worked. But it doesn’t mean other places will be able to replicate our successful experience. In China, we benefited from the government’s leadership, the culture in the East and the cooperation of the people,” he said.

Zhang said the government and scientists used social media to explain the reasons behind virus-fighting strategies and the public was willing to sacrifice individual freedoms in the short-term for the well-being of society.

He said that while China had contained the virus for now it did not mean China would not suffer further outbreaks because it could not remain isolated from the rest of the world, which is still battling the pandemic.

Zhang also said normal life could restart around the world after the people most vulnerable to Covid-19 were vaccinated.

“China will need to prepare for the reopening up of the world by maintaining a very low level of local cases with high vaccination rates,” Zhang said.

Protecting vulnerable groups would lead to a sharp drop in the global mortality rate, although a vaccine would not immediately end the pandemic, he said, adding that some countries might only vaccinate 30 to 40 per cent of their population.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 50 million people worldwide and killed more than 1 million people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Globally, 47 candidate vaccines are in the process of clinical evaluation, with 10 of them in the last and largest phase of testing, according to the World Health Organization.

Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, said that based on early results, he was optimistic that vaccines being developed would be effective.

“We don’t know much about safety yet. But a lot of people have gotten these vaccines and we’re not hearing a lot of problems arising. So that’s good news, too,” said Rubin, adjunct professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Hopefully within the next few months, there will be enough cases and enough vaccine recipients that [we] will be able to tell whether or not we have a vaccine. And if we do, hopefully [we’ll] come closer to putting an end to this worldwide outbreak.”

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