In the weeks since the coronavirus outbreak first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December, nearly 30,000 people have been infected and over 600 people have died as the deadly pathogen continues to spread. Scientists around the world are racing to find a treatment while infection numbers rise.
Information from the Chinese Communist Party about the conditions on the ground is limited and, in recent days, the public has learned that officials from Beijing cracked down on early warnings by doctors when the coronavirus first began to spread.
Since then, the virus has infected more than two dozen people in Europe. Both the EU and World Health Organization are scrambling to cope with the threat from the virus,
In an exclusive interview that took place in Geneva, the home base of the WHO, New Europe spoke with Professor Walter Ricciardi, the Italian representative on the executive board of the World Health Organization, about the coronavirus outbreak.
New Europe (NE): You’ve been attending important meetings here, in Geneva, about the current global emergency, what is your message to everyone about the coronavirus after having just come from the WHO’s headquarters?
Walter Ricciardi (WR): We are working on building the scientific data that we need to combat the virus thanks to our colleagues who are in the process of collecting more information about the coronavirus from both the microbiological and epidemiological point of view. Measures will then be taken to limit the spread of the virus from its epicentre and other highly affected regions in China. We now hope that the measures taken by the Chinese government will be able sufficient enough to put a direct focus on containing the virus. It’s important not to fuel a public hysteria or to over-exaggerate, but we should stick to a consistent evaluation of the current epidemic, which has a high chance to spread, but luckily it has a low pathogenic level if we compare it, for example, to the very deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome, (SARS) from several years ago. For the moment, there won’t be additional measures that will be taken, but on the recommendation of the WHO, we will continue to support the “weaker” countries. The other major effort that is ongoing, one which the EU Commission is also doing, is to help China acquire the medical equipment and devices, as well as certain medications, that it needs because the provisions that the Chinese currently have on hand are running out. It is important to stress at this juncture that from the perspective of the WHO, the main buzzword during the meeting that I attended in Geneva was “global solidarity”.
NE: What can Europe do concretely to support China?
WR: Even though China has very good production capacity, its medical supply reserves are running dangerously low. For this reason, the role of the EU countries will be to supply China with masks and other medical devices and medications to treat the symptoms of coronavirus.
NE: What do you think will happen in the next two weeks?
WR: The next couple of weeks are crucial, because we will understand the outcome of our actions. If, in these two weeks, there will be a slow down and then a reduction of cases, this means that the virus is going to its end. On the contrary, if there will be an increase, which I don’t think is likely, we will have to act swiftly and appropriately with more serious measures.
NE: In Italy, we have already recorded the first cases of coronavirus, which has also caused an absurd panic that has swept through the whole country. What is your message to the the Italian public in this regard?
WR: The population should listen to the authorities and the scientists before going into a panic. In a situation like this, transparency is key. It’s clear that this is a global epidemic and even though the political authorities and medical community are working hard to communicate exactly what is going on, unfortunately social media makes it is possible to find both real information or ridiculous conspiracy theories and wild rumours that help fuel all of these unjustified fears. In a situation like this, the best this that we can do is be attentive and concerned. Simply being afraid is not an option. Medical institutions and the authorities who are managing the situation will deal with the crisis, but I suggest that we need to do everything to avoid gross exaggerations. A good example of what not to do – blocking flights from China not only doesn’t stop the spread of the virus, but it also inconveniences travellers and signals that the public should mistrust others. This certainly doesn’t help build solidarity when we need to be working together.
NE: On February 2, the virus was found to have appeared in Italy and it became front page news all across the country. Is it really that important?
WR: It was good news that everyone heard about the cases. because it shows the capacity of our research centres to carry out a highly sophisticated and technical investigation. But after that, I think the news went overboard with the fear-mongering, but that has been the case in other countries as well. This discovery of he virus was obviously good, and our researchers in Italy are very talented, but it is not going to open further possibilities for the country, which is last when it comes to financing bio-medical research. Countries like the US, France, the UK, and Germany all have enormous amounts of money invested in developing methods, tools, and research projects so that they can learn more about similar outbreaks and later have the ability to properly follow-up on the discovery of new pathogens like the coronavirus. In Italy, however, this will only end up being a news headline and nothing more.
NE: Where are we in the process of being able to quickly and efficiently diagnosis the virus?
WR: Thanks to the quickly established cooperation with China after the virus was known to the public, I think the system that is in place has been acceptable and consistent. Let me be clear on this when I say that every diagnostic system can be improved in the near future.
NE: At this point, can Italy take further measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus?
WR: What I don’t understand is why our ministry authorised a Chinese university student to return to Italy without being medical screened and placed under quarantine for a finite period. From one side we see an exaggerated policy like stopping all direct flights to and from China, but then on the other side Italian citizens are coming from the affected areas and are put under quarantine while Chinese students can come back to Italy without any health checks. This is the only incongruity that I’ve noticed, otherwise, the procedure that have been put in place are sufficient for the time being.
NE: From the WHO’s perspective, did you notice a very tough attitude from the US towards China?
WR: Yes. The Americans were one of only a handful in the world to stop all direct flights with China. In Europe, only Italy did the same. Whether or not there was a geopolitical reason for this decision, I can’t really say.
NE: During these kinds of crises, how important is it to coordinate with both national and supranational institutions?
WR: There must be global coordination, it’s an imperative. For example, the SARS outbreak 17 years ago forced the EU to create the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. In this context, the WHO is key. But a large delegation, like the EU with its political and scientific weight, should play a more important role.