One of the leading experts on infectious diseases told me this week that he is encouraged that there has so far been no major spread of the coronavirus outside of China.
Professor David Heymann explained that it’s inappropriate to describe the situation as a pandemic, even though the disease has been recorded in about 25 countries and has led to deaths in two places outside of China.
Japan is on high alert.
According to the Japan Times, twenty cases of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus have been reported, four of which occurred in Tokyo.
Dr Heymann, who’s a distinguished fellow of the global health programme at Chatham House in London, told reporters that “outside of China, it seems as though there has been great success in controlling the disease.”
I was somewhat reassured by his words, which were in contrast to the alarming stories which have been appearing in the media.
Alarm in the press
Beijing’s Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman has complained about a global panic and has accused reporters of spreading fear.
At Chatham House, Dr Heymann said that some journalists are basing their stories about the dangers of coronavirus on speculation.
“We don’t have enough information to know if it’s a pandemic and I don’t like to make predictions,” he said.
He also said actions such as banning people from flying, preventing them from leaving cities such as Wuhan, or trying to control crowds are “experimental measures.”
This is significant for Japan, where the authorities are trying to quarantine thousands of people on board a cruise ship called the Diamond Princess, which is docked in Yokohama.
Japanese TV has shown footage of medical officials on board the boat, checking the guests’ temperatures.
Lands apart, shared sky
Many Japanese are sympathetic to the problems facing people from China and their concern is appreciated.
Quartz reports that users of social media in China have widely shared a post showing boxes of face masks donated by Japan for people in Wuhan.
The picture apparently includes a message written in Chinese: 山川异域 风月同天 (shan chuan yi yu, feng yue tong tian), which roughly translates as “lands apart, shared sky.”
Unfortunately, from a medical perspective, the masks are of limited value.
Dr Heymann told the meeting at Chatham House that although masks are useful in preventing someone from spreading the virus when they sneeze or cough, they don’t prevent a person from catching a disease.
He warned that people will be at risk from infection if they take off the mask to eat, or if it’s not fitted properly, or if it gets wet.
He also said that a vaccine for the coronavirus remains a long way off and “there will probably not be a vaccine in time for this outbreak.”