Last Friday, experts from Chinese and British universities and governmental bodies met to discuss how to tackle the current Coronavirus epidemic.
This 1-day conference, co-organized by ABCP (the Association of British Chinese Professors) and the Data Science Institute, saw the participation of experts in immunology, public health and data science. They discussed what is known about the outbreak as of mid-February, in China and globally, what is the forecast for the spread of the epidemic, and what can be done to contain the contagion and minimize its effects. This multidisciplinary meeting explored potential collaborations between UK and China on public health strategies and identified a few critical points that will be at the core of a briefing document to be sketched in the coming days.
The meeting was opened by professors Yike Guo, from Imperial College, currently vice-president at Hong Kong Baptist University, and Jianguo Lin, president of ABCP, who welcomed the participants and stressed the importance of collaboration and information sharing to address this global emergency.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, opened the session giving an overview of the current situation from an epidemiological perspective. He stressed how the focus so far has been on the most severe cases. This probably led to an underestimation of the actual number of infected cases, as many people may have developed light symptoms, didn’t require hospitalization and therefore went undetected. This is good news as it suggests that the flu may not be severe in all infected cases, but makes any containment measures more difficult to enforce.
This understanding led the Chinese authorities to change their criteria to identify infected patients, something which led to an increase in the numbers reported in the past few days.
He also stressed how the case fatality ratio (CFR), the number of deceased patients in relation to those infected, is not truly reliable at this stage. Given the long delay in time from the development of symptoms to death, many mild cases have probably gone undetected. This means that the actual fatality may be lower than so far reported.
Usually children are great spreader, but this doesn't seem to be the case for this flu Professor Joseph Wu Hong Kong University
Professor Joseph Wu added some data from Hong Kong University, showing how the current transmissibility (number of people that will get infected by each patient) is estimated to be around 2.4-2.6. He explained how stopping the spread is rather unlikely, even cutting off mobility entirely. He also showed how the data so far suggests a very diverse incidence of the disease among different age groups: “usually children are big spreaders of flu, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with this virus”. He spoke of a “clinical iceberg”, a situation in which the cases that have been identified so far provide probably just a glimpse of the overall picture of the epidemic.
Professor Shattock described the differences between CoViD-19 and previously known coronavirus such as SARS. His team worked towards the development of a vaccine at unprecedented speed. Even though human trials could take place within 4 months, a time scale that has never been seen before for vaccines, testing on humans would only take place during the summer, and availability to the wider population will only be in late winter. He warned that this may be late for the current epidemic and alternative measures need to be considered.
Several issues were raised during the various sessions and panel discussions, which saw the participation of the above mentioned academics as well as of professors Zhengming Chen (University of Oxford), KK Cheng (University of Birmingham), Sunan Jiang (Science and Technology Sector of Embassy of PRC in UK), Jonathan Pearce (MRC), and Daquing Ma (Imperial College London).
In the final round of recommendations, professor Shattock reiterated that the current efforts to identify a suitable treatment should go beyond the creation of a new vaccine, whose trials’ time can be rather long, and look at possible repurposing of current drugs. He also stressed the importance of preventive measures. Professor Ma reinforced this point adding that healthcare systems (in China and everywhere else) need not only more facilities and devices, but also to support healthcare professionals so that they can provide adequate assistance to patients. Jonathan Pierce, from the Medical Research Council in the UK, also highlighted the importance of collaboration and cooperation and the need for a global coordination of efforts, that involves researchers as well as funders and companies.
This last message was echoed by professor Guo who presented the most recent research done at the DSI on transmissibility and duration of the infection. This work analyses official data of people hospitalized and infected. Through data assimilation methods, the team (Rossella Arcucci, Philip Nadler, Xian Yang and Shuo Wang) aims to forecast how the virus will spread and to estimate the efficacy of current quarantine policies, useful information to support and inform policy decisions. Professor Guo concluded: “We need to be strategic and openly share crucial information with scientists all around the world. The best support from China, now? Not money, but data.”
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