PH better prepared now than in SARS, but nCoV threat greater: ex-health chief

Aleta Nieva-Nishimori, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 06 2020 06:10 PM | Updated as of Feb 06 2020 07:27 PM

People scramble to buy face masks in a medical supply store a day after Philippine government confirmed the first novel coronavirus case, in Manila, January 31, 2020. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

MANILA - A former health secretary on Thursday said the government must beef up its efforts in containing the spread of the fast moving 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), as this is a harder battle than the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). 

"The capacity of government during SARS and now is maybe 2 or 3 times greater. its better, but the threat seems 5 to 10 times more," said Dr. Manuel Dayrit.

Dayrit, who headed the health department during the SARS outbreak in 2002, said the 2019-nCoV is much more explosive than SARS.

In SARS, Dayrit said for every 10 infected person, 1 died. But in the new coronavirus, 2 died for every 100 infected person.

"But that could change as the virus spreads very, very rapidly. Many people get infected but not everybody dies. The case fatality, as they say-- which is the fraction of those who died over those who are infected--may be smaller. But actually, you have a large number of cases. In the end, you'd still have a significant number of deaths," Dayrit said in an interview on ANC's Headstart.

The 2019-nCoV has killed over 500 people and infected some 27,300 mostly in China.

Comparing it to the SARS outbreak, Dayrit said it took about 3 months before it reached Hong Kong. In the case of the coronavirus, the cases spiraled far, exceeding the total for SARS.

"In SARS, we had 8000 cases worldwide over 9 months. For coronavirus, we have 20,000 already in a month," he said.

In the Philippines, there are 133 patients under observation for possible coronavirus infection. Health authorities are also tracing people who came in close contact with three Chinese patients with confirmed 2019-nCoV cases.

With the experience in handling the SARS outbreak, Dayrit shared that its all about capacity.

"You'd have to think of it in terms of component for controlling an epidemic," Dayrit said. 

He said the first one should be preventing the entry of imported cases. 

"Don't load the country with a lot of tourists particularly from Wuhan which is the epicenter," he said.

The virus originated from the Chinese City of Wuhan in Hubei Province. The city has since been on a lockdown.

"Now, people are sort of used to this outbreaks. They travel. It’s a different context. At that time, we didn't initiate a travel ban there, nobody travelling that much. But now people are travelling even when they're in the face of an outbreak," he said.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that can cause infections ranging from the common cold to SARS. Some of the virus types cause less severe disease, while some - like the one that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) - are far more severe.

No local transmission has been reported in the Philippines as the 3 confirmed cases are imported from Wuhan City.

"If we get local transmission here, every infected case then has the potential of multiplying. For n-CoV, they say the reproductive rate is about 3, which is 1 person can infect 3 other people and those 3 other people can in turn infect 3 other people each...and therefore can be an exponential spread," he said.

The way to stop it from spreading he said is to isolate infected persons.

"My fear here is if you get local transmission and get a significant number of cases say 10, 15, 20, 30 and you have it in a place that doesn't have enough isolation rooms, then you're in trouble," he said.

While authorities need to prevent the entry of imported cases, they also need to prevent local transmission that imported case may actually cause, he stressed.