Influenza expert who dealt with previous viral outbreaks defends World Health Organisation from criticism
Now is the time to focus on the global effort to contain the disease, he says
Critics of China’s public health response should not get “hung up on looking backwards” at a time when the country is overwhelmed by the novel
, a former World Health Organisation official has said.
Keiji Fukuda, an influenza epidemiology expert at University of Hong Kong with a long history at the WHO, also called on the public to distinguish between the day-to-day work of the organisation and the choice of words used by its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Fukuda’s comments came amid criticism of the WHO director general for deflecting criticism of China and delaying the declaration of a global health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak which originated in Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei.
The Chinese government has also been under fire at home and abroad for allegedly withholding information during the early stages of the outbreak which has infected some 40,000 people and killed more than 1,000.
The death toll from the coronavirus has exceeded the 813 people killed by severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) which swept through China and other parts of Asia in 2002-03.
Fukuda said questions on whether China had released information in a timely and transparent manner during the early stages of the outbreak were legitimate to ask, but now was not a good time.
“I think it’s really important now for us to focus on efforts to address the outbreak and not get very hung up on looking backward,” Fukuda said.
“When it’s time to go back, did all information that could have been provided come out in a timely way? If not, was it because there is a system issue, a culture issue or was it because of roadblocks regarding the information coming out? I think these are the questions which at some point should definitely be asked,” he said.
During his 11 years with the WHO, Fukuda held a number of senior positions, including special representative for antimicrobial resistance for the director general, assistant director general for health security, and special adviser on pandemic influenza. He left the organisation to take up a tenure at the division of community medicine and public health practice at HKU’s faculty of medicine.
His remarks were seen as an attempt to steer discussion away from criticism in the media by epidemiologist John Mackenzie, a member of the WHO’s emergency committee, who described Beijing’s early response as “reprehensible” for keeping the infection figures “quiet”.
Responding to criticism faced by the WHO chief, Fukuda said he had no doubt that the organisation’s staffers had done their best in handling the disease outbreak.
“I think what the director general says and how he nuances things – some people may like it and some people might not – but it’s important to distinguish these two things from the bread and butter work, which the organisation has to do, and how it portrays things,” Fukuda said, who was also the WHO’s media spokesperson during previous global outbreaks.
This included getting information from China and other countries, analysing, assessing and trying to help countries that needed to get prepared, as well as helping to coordinate international efforts to develop medicine and vaccines, he said.
While Fukuda said it was too early to assess the effect of China’s containment efforts of the coronavirus in Hubei province, he affirmed that Beijing had built “an extraordinary” public health system since Sars, strengthening public health surveillance, laboratories and scientific talent.
The virus outbreak has triggered panic buying in the region. In Hong Kong, there is an extreme shortage of products like surgical face masks, alcohol hand rubs and bleach. Other grocery products, including rice, toilet paper and noodles, are also flying off the shelves in Hong Kong’s supermarkets.
Even after an extended career battling the world’s most severe public health crises, including H5N1, Sars and H7N9 outbreaks in Hong Kong and China, as well as Mers and Ebola on a global level, Fukuda felt the hardest thing when dealing with the coronavirus was the lack of public trust.
He said “the single biggest difference and difficulty” between Sars and the current coronavirus outbreak was that it was “getting harder to communicate and to build trust” while leaving technical issues of the viruses aside.
“We have entered into an era where people are more confused, there are more rumours than ever and it creates more division. When I sit back and look at the overall picture, if I had a magic wand to wave it would be on how can we get people to not be so panicky,” he said.
“The level of trust is the key ingredient for almost everything when dealing with public health,” he added.