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Novel Coronavirus Outbreak: “India’s Response And Surveillance Has Been Quite Robust,” Says WHO’s Chief Scientist

80 per cent Coronavirus infections are mild like a flu or common cold, says the WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan as she advised people to not panic. Here’s what she had to say in an exclusive chat with NDTV

NDTV spoke to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist, who says that scientists are still learning on a day to day basis how this virus behaves and how vaccines are still far away

New Delhi: Two new cases of coronavirus have been reported in Delhi and Telangana and there is one suspected case in Rajasthan. One of the passengers of an Air India flight from Vienna to Delhi on February 25 is suspected to be infected. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on Tuesday (March 3), took to Twitter to address the outbreak in the country and urged people to not panic. He said,

Had an extensive review regarding preparedness on the COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. Different ministries & states are working together, from screening people arriving in India to providing prompt medical attention. There is no need to panic. We need to work together, take small yet important measures to ensure self-protection.

NDTV spoke to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist, who says that scientists are still learning on a day to day basis how this virus behaves and how vaccines are still far away.

Also Read: Coronavirus: ‘Flu Corners’ To Be Set Up In Hospitals In Punjab

This is at the highest level being dealt at WHO. What according to you is the worst case scenario?

The Coronavirus is circulating in every continent, and in every WHO region except Antarctica. It has really gone beyond just an outbreak in China as the number of affected countries is increasing by the hour, with about 66 countries affected today. I think the response globally needs to change with the changing epidemic and that is why WHO has raised the level of risk and wants every country to be prepared against the outbreak whether they have a case right now or not. We got some time on hand right now owing to the travel restrictions put in place by China on their own citizens but eventually the virus has spread to other countries and hence WHO wants every nation to be prepared.

A lot of people have been discussing the cure. People and viewers have a question about the cure for Corona Virus so what’s the scientific answer to that

We have to remember that this is a new virus and before December we did not know about the existence of this virus. Of course, we know about the other Coronaviruses from the same family and people will remember the SARS and MERS outbreak that we’ve had in the past. But this particular variant is a completely new virus it’s neither SARS nor MERS or influenza. Scientists are working round the clock and in fact, at this very moment, I’m in a meeting where we are discussing the research priorities, what’s going on today, and expect to have answers soon. It quote natural that people want to know but the fact remains that today, we are still learning on a day by day basis about how this virus behaves.

At the moment, there are many clinical trials ongoing to different bio relations and different therapies, Of course vaccines are still a far-fetched reality. An urgent priority is to get the diagnostics done as that’s what you need right at the beginning, to get diagnosed and thanks to the advances in biotechnology today, the moment the genetic sequence of the virus was known, it was possible almost overnight to create the diagnostic for the virus. People should not panic, as this virus as a whole affects people as a mild respiratory infection. Of course there are those who get severely ill and we need to be prepared to treat them as well.

Also Read: Coronavirus: No Need To Panic, Says Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan After COVID-19 Cases

In a situation like this when we need a scientific solution to a medical crisis, when you get in our country for examples, political leaders saying things like co dung or cow urine can be beneficial in fixing something like coronavirus, do we end up taking a step back after such statements, as we need to deal with the issue in a modern scientific manner.

I completely agree, I think all the public figures including politicians need to be extra careful when it comes to making such statements because they have such a huge following. Its really important for them to say things that are based on some scientific evidence and rationing This includes saying things using protective equipment, and masks, which for your information, ordinary people do not need to wear masks as your health and if you’re not in contact with anyone affected with Coronavirus. Also when it comes to the claims of cures of this infection we should be extremely careful about our statements and it should be made by the people who know what they’re talking about. And has to be backed by evidence,

There have been claims by the Chinese government about the declining trend in the cases of Coronavirus. Is that the case?

Yes, there is clearly a declining trend in China. In fact, outside the Wuhan province, there have only been a handful number of cases detected everyday over the last week or so. Even in Wuhan, the suspected and confirmed cases have come down, which shows that the measures taken by the Chinese government used in quarantine, isolation and social distancing have paid off.

Also Read: COVID-19: All About The New Coronavirus Virus And Step Being Taken To Contain The Outbreak

Therefore, I assume that your concerns at the moment would be Iran, Italy South Korea. What are some of your biggest concerns in these countries and when it comes to their approach to managing the virus.

Our major concern is that this virus enters countries with the weak and fragile health systems. Because if we’re not I control of the healthcare system, things can go terribly wrong. In terms of Iran, they have a very good primary healthcare system, but lately that has weakened due to some of the sanctions imposed on them. However, they are doing their best and so are South Korea and Italy and WHO is working closely with each of these nations to with the ministries of health there. Again, it’s concerning if the virus reaches Africa, currently, two African countries have reported Coronavirus, Nigeria and Algeria, but if it goes into other countries which have limited resources for both treatment and diagnosis, as well as surveillance and follow up then we have a really worrisome situation ahead of us. We are working really hard to strengthen those health systems, so they can respond if and when the virus reaches to those nations.

In terms of how India is handling the situation, there have been five confirmed cases and one suspected case, which is been reported in Jaipur. Of that three people are okay now and have been released while, there are still two confirmed cases and one likely case. For a country that is as big as ours, is India doing relatively well in controlling the spread of the virus?

Overall, India’s response and surveillance have been quite robust. Especially the initial wave of people who came from China. Subsequently, India is testing people traveling from the affected countries upon reaching the Indian airports, the quarantine, surveillance, and follow ups. But I think, as we move onto this next phase of the virus, where there seems to be a community transmission in many countries, over the last week, we’ve seen many countries seeing community transmission, India also perhaps, need to think about what other kind of surveillance needs t be put in place. For example, we need to have a very high index, for looking out for healthcare workers who may be getting affected with influenza like sickness.

India could consider Coronavirus or COVID 19 screening against viral diseases like pneumonia or influenza which could turn into influenza negative. There could be other measures put in place just to ensure that we’re not missing, any transmission happening in the community because people could be coming in asymptomatic. One of the things about this virus is that the screening at the airport is not going to pick up each and everybody who is affected so people could be coming in without knowing that they are carrying the infection and then further spread it. So it’s important to look out at places other than these points of entry.

Also Read: Coronavirus Outbreak: How To Protect Oneself From Catching The Virus

to a large extent by individuals traveling on flights, is it necessary for airlines and government to quarantine those who may have been on a flight where a NOVED case has been detected. As you said, airport screening might not always catch the affected or is full-proof.

There does need to be a way of tracking them, it is perhaps not necessary to quarantine them all in a particular facility but being able to track them, tell them what to expect and if possible as them to self-quarantine themselves at home and report immediately if they notice any symptoms. I think that’s the urgent follow-up action that needs to be taken at this moment. I think it is possible now that we will see more such cases.

A lot of people are worried or scared, perhaps we should be scared up to a certain extent, but to prevent a panic, what is your message to our viewers and readers?

I would say that since it is a new virus, it is natural to be a little fearful because you don’t know what to expect. But I think we have 90,000 people who have been affected by this globally. And we know quite a lot about what has happened in China, so it is clear that about 80 per cent of infections are mild it is just like a flu or common cold. About 15 per cent, of these cases get severe and need hospitalization and the remaining 5 per cent, roughly, become critically ill and this is usually the people who are older that 60 years or have an underlying lung condition or diabetes and so on. So for a vast majority of people who get infected with this virus are not going to get very sick. So that is the first thing we need to remember to calm the panic.

Secondly, you can take simple preventive measures like wash your hands or do not touch your face too much. We know that this is a droplet infection that spreads either by being in direct contact with someone who has been infected or by contact with the surface. So washing hands frequently or using an alcohol-based sanitizer is a must.

If you have any symptoms of cough and cold, please stay inside your house and they are the ones who should be wearing masks so that they do not transmit it to others. Avoid crowded places if you’re sick and hospitals and health facilities need to follow a set of particular procedures to make sure that they are isolating the suspected cases. We shouldn’t panic as right now what we need is basic health measure tools until we have better tools to prevent and treat this infection.

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