Coronavirus could 'devastate' Samoa: Kiwi microbiologist

A leading Kiwi microbiologist has warned that the coronavirus could “devastate” hospital systems in countries such as Samoa if it were to make it past border-control measures.

Dr. Siouxsie Wiles from the University of Auckland told the Samoa Observer that the recent transmission of the measles epidemic from New Zealand to Samoa was a signal case of the ability for viruses to spread.

Dr. Wiles said Samoa’s recently-imposed travel restrictions were stringent but warned that the situation with the coronavirus was changing from minute to minute, which had implications for whether it could be successfully contained. 

“On the available evidence it does look like that’s the best you can do but it could change at any moment,” she said.

While Dr. Wiles said the measures were comprehensive, she said that fast-changing information about the virus made the question of whether immigration controls alone were adequate “very hard to answer”.

The possibility that sufferers of the illness could not be afflicted by any of its symptoms meant there could be a lag between a country’s declaration of a confirmed case and one of its citizens being granted entry despite travel restrictions. 

“We’ve never seen it before,” she said. 

“There are cases among clusters [of infected people] where we have asymptomatic spread (transmission of the virus by patients who had no symptoms).”

The Ministry of Health was recently empowered with a range of powers to contain the virus’ spread while border-control measures were also implemented. 

Incoming visitors from countries with confirmed cases of the Coronavirus must spend 14 days in another port free of the virus and receive medical clearance within three days of travelling to Samoa before facing deportation.

The Ministry of Health updates a "blacklist" of countries every two days the list of countries from which international travellers are subject to the new restrictions.

But one arrival from Australia late last week was able to escape mandatory quarantine because the country had yet to be added to the list. Australia has recently recorded its tenth case.

While several commentators have noted that the coronavirus has a comparatively low mortality rate compared to previous virus outbreaks, she said the measles epidemic in Samoa proved that viruses were not equally lethal in different locations. 

“We (New Zealand) have the facilities to deal with people. We can isolate people, we can do these contact tracing, we have I.C.U. [Intensive Care Unit] beds, we have the facilities with this,” she said in an interview this week with the New Zealand television station TV1.  

“Whereas in Samoa...their health system is under resourced.

On Tuesday the death toll from the virus in China reached 426, while a total of over US$400 billion was wiped off the Chinese stock market.

Infections have now been confirmed in 24 countries, while several countries, including the United States and Australia,  have joined Samoa in imposing restrictions on citizens’ travel to China.

Dr. Wiles said tracking the virus’ spread through Chinese cities other than Wuhan, the central metropolis where the virus is understood to have originated would provide key clues about the nature of its transmission.

She said that the development of a blood test for the virus could also be a major step forward toward more effective containment. 

“The next couple of weeks will be crucial,” she told the Samoa Observer.

“After all, you can’t quarantine everyone”. 

A total of six people remain in quarantine at the Faleolo Hospital quarantine site.

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