A Newfoundlander is leading the global fight against COVID-19, and wants you to know the facts

There are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Dr. Bruce Aylward is leading the charge to keep it that way.

The St. John’s-raised, Memorial University-educated doctor was appointed the leader of the World Health Organization’s efforts to contain the virus in China in January.

Since then, his expertise has gone worldwide. Aylward spoke with The St. John’s Morning Show on Tuesday from Geneva.

What’s a day in the life of Dr. Bruce Aylward like these days?

I’m not sure you want to know that [laughs]. I got to bed at about 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock this morning and I got up at 7. I’ve been speaking with Iraq, communicating with China, I was on the phone with Italy this morning, as well as some of our internal teams and senior advisors, and I’m running into something else in about 15 minutes.

How did you come to be leading the mission to China for the World Health Organization?

I have a long history in working in large-scale infectious disease and public health outbreaks and humanitarian emergencies. As you may know, I led the first WHO response and then the UN response on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a few years back. And so after our director general here and the president of China met and discussed the escalating situation in China back in January, they agreed on the value of having an international team come in and look, and I got tapped to lead the team.

Did you have any fear going into that situation? In terms of the virus itself?

No, I didn’t, quite frankly. Because remember, viruses are only something that survive in people and they survive in the cases — and the people who were the closest contacts to those cases, primarily. If you take all the public health measures you there at CBC are recommending and amplifying, and that Public Health Canada is amplifying, you can reduce your own personal risk down to a very, very, low level.

What is the biggest challenge you face with preventing the spread of COVID-19?

I think the single biggest challenge we faced is a misunderstanding and often a softpedalling of this at the level of the population.

People are clever. People are concerned about their health. People will do the right things if they have the right information.

What we’ve seen is people are cherry-picking data. So they look at the lowest possible case fatality rates and say, “Oh look, it’s like seasonal flu.” Or they pick, “Oh it doesn’t spread so fast because of this,” or “Oh it only affects the older ones, I’m safe.” And none of those propositions are true.

There’s no reason to panic about this disease, but you have to be deeply concerned. This is not seasonal flu. It’s an order of magnitude [with] tenfold — at least — higher mortality rate. Yes, it does strike vulnerable populations, but it can strike any age, let’s be very, very clear — especially between your 30s and 60s and the older population.

If the population understands all those things, it will play ball. And I find the single biggest challenge is the populations aren’t always getting clear enough information.

How does this effort compare to some of the others you’ve been involved with?

Someone asked me yesterday if the different ones I worked on before this one were dress rehearsals, and one of the things I pointed out is there’s really no dress rehearsal because every one of these outbreaks and viruses are different.

You learn some things from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and you learn other things leading the Zika response, which was a more global response and a pathogen that moved in a different way. Then you learn something from the yellow fever.

So every one of them, you pick up little bits and pieces that help you when it comes to dealing with a completely new virus, this current one.

The big things that you learn are really about how to work across that public health, health system, all-of-government interface, which is so critical to making a response like this a success.

You’ve remained very optimistic about containing the virus. You’ve said you believe containment is still possible. Is that still what you believe?

It’s not what I believe. It’s the reality of the virus.

The important thing we learned in China, and I think this was a surprise for me and for the really top experts we had on the team, is that you can actually control a virus that spreads through a respiratory route with some old-fashioned public health measures.

The virus that we know best in this regard is flu, and it moves so fast. The conventional wisdom is that it’s not possible to slow these down this way.

What we saw in China was with the rigorous approach and right population measures — that means hand washing, finding the cases, finding their contacts, etc. — you could actually really slow these things down, prevent an awful lot of illness and prevent a lot of deaths. Those lessons are really, really, clear.

So it’s not that I remain optimistic. I expect people to operate on the evidence and reduce the risk.


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