A new study emphasizes the importance of early action in the case of containing an outbreak. Had the Chinese authorities acted one, two, or three weeks earlier, the number of cases would have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively.
Earlier action could have halted the geographical expanse of the virus, which makes China’s initial response damning in perspective.
The coronavirus outbreak is a hard reminder that no matter who we are and where we live in the world, some threats affect us all equally. No doubt, some are trying to use this outbreak as leverage for geopolitical power — we are already seeing machinations in this direction. But there are valuable lessons that go far beyond finger-pointing and blaming: there are lessons about how to deal with one of the biggest struggles in modern history.
Researchers using the population mapping group WorldPop ran complex modeling to see how human movement and disease onset would have evolved in different scenarios. They used anonymized data on both human travel and illness onset. This allowed them to see how different changes would have affected the situation, and how variations in the timing and nature of interventions would have affected the speed and transmission of the disease.
The findings are striking.
Deploying non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) quickly is extremely effective in preventing the geographical spread of the virus. If non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) had been applied 3 weeks earlier the spread could have been limited by 95%, researchers found.
Furthermore, delaying containment measures even more would have been devastating. An additional delay of 1, 2, or 3 weeks, would have led to a 3-fold, 7-fold, or 18-fold increase, respectively.
The findings are important as many parts of the world are now in a similar situation to China. Director of the University of Southampton’s WorldPop group, Professor Andy Tatem, explains:
“Our study demonstrates how important it is for countries which are facing an imminent outbreak to proactively plan a coordinated response which swiftly tackles the spread of the disease on a number of fronts. We also show that China’s comprehensive response, in a relatively short period, greatly reduced the potential health impact of the outbreak.”
There is a narrow window of opportunity to respond to this disease. Since it will likely be months before effective treatments or vaccines are released, NPI-type measures are crucial.
“We need to be smart about how we target it using non-drug-related interventions. Our findings significantly contribute to an improved understanding of how best to implement measures and tailor them to conditions in different regions of the world,” says lead author Dr Shengjie Lai, of the University of Southampton
“We are now focussed on adapting this work to new settings beyond China to support response efforts. Different countries may need different approaches, but we aim to help them make informed decisions on how best to put interventions in place.”
The study also suggests that social distancing (one such NPI measure) should continue for several months.
“Results also suggest that the social distancing intervention should be continued for the next few months in China to prevent case numbers increasing again after travel restrictions were lifted on February 17, 2020,” the study reads.
In the initial phases, China tried to downplay the risk and even questioned doctors who were spreading information about the then-new condition on social media. Eight doctors were brought in for police questioning and essentially silenced.
China’s ulterior reaction was severe, but the initial cover-up attempts were very costly, this new study suggests.
WorldPop, funded primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is a population mapping tool developed to help inform the World Health Organisation and the CDC about the potential spread of COVID-19, helping direct COVID-19 interventions around the planet.
The study has been published in the preprint server medRxiv.