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‘We should not be worried’ says epidemics expert on coronavirus dangers

Dr. Antoni Trilla of Hospital Clinic describes the threat and protocols for an outbreak in Catalonia

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12 February 2020 10:47 AM

by

Cillian Shields & Lorcan Doherty | Barcelona

A leading expert in epidemics has said that there is “no need to cancel” the Mobile World Congress.

The world’s biggest mobile trade fair is due to take place in Barcelona from February 24 - 27, but it’s viability is being questioned after more than a dozen companies, among them Amazon and Facebook, announced they would be pulling out due to fears around the potential spread of the coronavirus.

But Dr Antoni Trilla of Hospital Clinic in central Barcelona, an expert in the field of epidemiology, told Catalan News that people in Catalonia should be more worried about the flu. “We’re in the middle of the yearly flu epidemic with a lot of cases, fortunately it seems to be not so severe a flu season. We should not be worried about a virus we don’t have among us, that’s the reality of the situation.”

Dr Trilla expressed concern about the spread of misinformation, what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called an  ‘infodemic,’ or an epidemic of information. “Some of the information certainly could be true, some of the information is not so true and we can’t believe it, so some people are confused and worried, and I understand that.”

Outbreak protocols

In the event of an outbreak, can Catalan doctors and hospitals cope? How is a patient treated if they are being tested for the deadly COVID-19 virus? 

“The protocols are mostly aimed to detect any possible case of coronavirus as soon as possible,” Dr. Trilla explains. 

As well as the 14-day incubation period, “We’ll test the patient with a nasal swab and pharyngeal swab, and see if this person under interest has the coronavirus.” 

The medical professional admits that health facilities here are not equipped to deal with hundreds of thousands of cases breaking out at the one time, but is not too worried about this hypothetical worst-case scenario. 

“Are we prepared to treat a patient even with a severe coronavirus infection? Yes. Are we prepared to treat 100,000 people with coronavirus? No, but neither is England, France, the United States, no one in the world,” he says. 

At this point, with no coronavirus cases confirmed in Catalonia, he maintains the priority is prevention and precaution. “We have to try to stop it as soon as possible and hope that by doing the right things, this will not get out of control.” 

Mobile World Congress up in the air

The worldwide hysteria over the disease which has already taken over 1,100 lives has led to many global technology companies cancelling their participation at the world’s largest mobile industry trade show, the Mobile World Congress, due to be held in Barcelona in late February. Sony, LG, Ericsson and plenty of other huge names have already dropped out.

Is the threat of the disease worth cancelling the Mobile World Congress? Thousands travel from China to the Barcelona congress each year, and over 100,000 show up to the event, spending most of a week together in close proximity. 

However, the event has already taken a series of measures to maximise safety, including prohibiting any Chinese visitor who isn’t able to prove they have been out of China for at least 14 days prior to the event. 

“Taking into account the scientific evidence and recommendations from the WHO, there’s no reason to cancel the meeting,” Dr. Trilla believes. “If it is cancelled, it will be for different reasons, for avoiding risk or excessive precautions, which I can understand because each company handles their own information.” 

Ultimately, the doctor sees the worry being over a hypothetical scenario, that is not real at this moment in time, and therefore sees no reason to cancel events based on possibilities. 

“Should we think about suspending the next Olympic games in Tokyo? Should we cancel the next automobile exhibition, the next FC Barcelona matches, hopefully in the final of the Champions League? Our lives must continue,” he argues.

Social media debate

On Monday, researcher Oriol Mitjà took the debate to social media with a thread on Twitter looking at the risks of a coronavirus outbreak at the Mobile World Congress.

If you want zero risk, ensuring that there will be no coronavirus cases, you have to postpone the Mobile World Congress,” he told Catalan News.

He warned that just a single case of the virus would have a 20% to 30% chance of causing an epidemic, and if just three people arrived at the trade fair with the infection, that would rise to 50%.

Mitjà, who is a professor of infectious diseases and global health, pointed out that, although the infection is mild and has a mortality rate of only 0.2% (similar to the flu) outside China, the virus is highly contagious and can easily spread if no proper precautionary measures are taken. He warned that "confined and crowded" environments such as a conference are "ideal" for respiratory virus transmission.

In spite of these concerns, he said that it would still be "reasonable" to go ahead with the congress but said organizers should consider the risks and expert advice when making their decision. He also argued it would have to be clarified who should bear the costs of controlling a potential epidemic.

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  • Dr. Antoni Trilla, a world expert on epidemics, speaks in an interview with the Catalan News Agency (by Laura Fíguls)

  • Dr. Antoni Trilla, a world expert on epidemics, speaks in an interview with the Catalan News Agency (by Laura Fíguls)

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