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Experts Discuss Coronavirus Outbreak at Harvard School of Public Health Forum

School of Public Health faculty and medical professionals spoke about the current state of the coronavirus outbreak.
School of Public Health faculty and medical professionals spoke about the current state of the coronavirus outbreak. By Megan M. Ross
By Helen He and Alex M. Koller, Contributing Writers

Public health experts convened to share information, updates, and advice for the public on the recent coronavirus outbreak during a Monday forum at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Health care journalist Elana Gordon moderated the forum, which featured in-person panelists Paul D. Biddinger, the medical director of emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital, and School of Public Health professors Marc Lipsitch and Winnie Chi-Man Yip.

Hilary D. Martson, a policy advisor at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joined the forum remotely via video call in place of NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, who was originally slated to speak.

Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, broke out in Wuhan, China, at the end of last year. More than 90,000 cases have been reported worldwide, and more than 3,000 people have died from the illness.

Harvard restricted travel to Italy and Iran Saturday amid an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the two countries. The University previously instituted travel restrictions to China and South Korea.

Yip, who also serves as faculty director of the China Health Partnership at the School of Public Health, discussed the Chinese government’s response to the outbreak at the event.

“China has been, I would call it, in a firefighting mode — locking down Wuhan, imposing very, very strict travel bans across the entire country, extending the Chinese New Year holiday,” Yip said. She added that these strategies were consistent with expert recommendations at the time.

The panelists stressed the importance of expanding testing capacity to combat the outbreak.

“Testing is really the biggest barrier we face,” Biddinger said. “I think trying to make sure we can know who does and who doesn’t potentially have the virus is going to be one of the most significant challenges in the healthcare system.”

Martson argued that, given the long time frame required to develop new vaccines, public health measures may be the most reliable and timely responses in the interim.

“If everything moves as quickly as possible, the soonest that it could possibly be would be around one and a half to two years — that still might be very optimistic,” Martson said.

Lipsitch identified two “essential” pieces of information researchers are focusing on to better understand COVID-19 transmission: the role children play in spreading the virus and the number of undetected cases.

Toward the end of the forum, the panelists emphasized the importance of cooperation and empathy over division in response to public fears and instances of racism in wake of the pandemic.

“We are all in this together,” Biddinger said. “We should be grateful for actions of the Chinese, the Italians, others who have delayed some of the spread to help us respond.”

“We should all recognize that we have a stake in responding effectively together, and that’s true in our neighborhoods as well as in the country and our global perspective,” he added.

Throughout the event, panelists reminded the audience of the level of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and urged them to be prepared for both progress and persisting unknowns.

“I don’t think there is an easy yes-or-no answer to the question of whether we are prepared,” Biddinger said in an interview after the event. “I think we are absolutely more prepared in the healthcare system than we have ever been and we are building on decades of work, but we also have real capacity constraints.”

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