WUHAN, CHINA ~ March 30, 2020 (LSN) Science has tried to interview George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for 2 months. Last week he responded.
Gao oversees 2000 employees—one-fifth the staff size of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and he remains an active researcher himself. In January, he was part of a team that did the first isolation and sequencing of severe acute respiratory syndrome 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19.
He co-authored two widely read papers published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that provided some of the first detailed epidemiology and clinical features of the disease, and has published three more papers on COVID-19 in The Lancet.
Gao answered Science’s questions over several days via text, voicemails, and phone conversations. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What can other countries learn from the way China has approached COVID-19?
A: Social distancing is the essential strategy for the control of any infectious diseases, especially if they are respiratory infections. First, we used “nonpharmaceutical strategies,” because you don’t have any specific inhibitors or drugs and you don’t have any vaccines. Second, you have to make sure you isolate any cases. Third, close contacts should be in quarantine: We spend a lot of time trying to find all these close contacts, and to make sure they are quarantined and isolated. Fourth, suspend public gatherings. Fifth, restrict movement, which is why you have a lockdown, the cordon sanitaire in French.
Q: The lockdown in China began on 23 January in Wuhan and was expanded to neighboring cities in Hubei province. Other provinces in China had less restrictive shutdowns. How was all of this coordinated, and how important were the “supervisors” overseeing the efforts in neighborhoods?
A: You have to have understanding and consensus. For that you need very strong leadership, at the local and national level. You need a supervisor and coordinator working with the public very closely. Supervisors need to know who the close contacts are, who the suspected cases are. The supervisors in the community must be very alert. They are key.
Q: What mistakes are other countries making?
A: The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.
By Jon CohenMar. 27, 2020 , 6:15 PM
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