On 27 January (Monday), National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said that Singapore has to be psychologically prepared that the recent Wuhan coronavirus outbreak could be possibly worse than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.
However, Mr Wong noted that it is still too early to tell now how the Wuhan virus is as compared to SARS.
“The medical experts tell us as of now that the virus is not as infectious as SARS, (the) fatality rate is lower as of now. But the situation is evolving so quickly, and as you all heard from the Chinese authorities yesterday, the virus is getting stronger, the number of infections is likely to rise,” he said.
He continued, “So we just have to be psychologically prepared that this can get worse than SARS.”
In 2003, 238 people were infected with the SARS coronavirus in Singapore and 33 of them lost their lives, including doctors and healthcare workers. The virus is contagious as it spreads through close contact with the bodily fluids of the infected individuals.
However, for the latest Wuhan coronavirus, “Mr Wong said, “Some of you asked: What if there is a risk of infections spreading even before the symptoms show?
“If that were to happen, I think the spread of the virus will be much faster because we are unable to identify and isolate unlike SARS – we had the means to because of symptoms.”
Despite this, Mr Wong pointed out that there’s no conclusive evidence as of now to prove that the Wuhan virus is capable of spreading pre-symptoms.
“We are in consultation with our medical experts on what the evidence for this is, because I think this is still quite preliminary,” he explained.
He added, “It’s certainly something we are watching out for, because if indeed this is happening, then certainly, we will have to do more and escalate our measures even further.”
Mr Wong went on to state that there are a lot of “uncertainties” and “imponderables” when it comes to the Wuhan virus, and Singapore has to be ready to face anything given that things could get worse with more cases reported in China and other overseas locations.
“And as I said, be psychologically prepared that this may take some time to unravel, but be assured too that you have a system in place,” he noted.
He also asserted that Singapore is better prepared now to deal with an outbreak after leaning lessons from the SARS epidemic back in 2003.
“We have put in place inter-ministry coordination mechanisms. We have put in place drawer plans for a full range of different scenarios of the virus outbreak,” he said.
He further said, “We want to assure Singaporeans that we are (better prepared), and that’s why our message is: Keep calm, carry on with our lives, but all of us work together, take the necessary precautions and we can overcome this together.”
Earlier on Thursday (23 January), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also assured that Singapore is now “much better prepared” to handle a new virus since the SARS outbreak in 2003.
“After SARS, we made a thorough review of what of the facilities we had – the infrastructure, hospitals, isolation wards, and the scientific testing and capabilities,” explained PM Lee.
He continued, “I think we are much better prepared now,” while mentioning about the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases, which opened in late 2018.
Mr Lee also noted that Science has progressed well over the years, allowing scientists to identify and share more information about the virus now.
“Science has made a lot of progress since SARS, so this time with a new coronavirus, the scientists have been able to identify and sequence it much faster than happened with SARS and share the information with other countries in a much more expeditious way,” he said.
On Monday, the authorities also revealed that more strict measure are taken to deal with the Wuhan virus. Some of the measures include expanding travel advisories for China, increased checks at borders and compulsory leave of absences for certain individuals returning from China.
Ministry of Health director-designate of medical services Kenneth Mak called the measures “appropriate, ready and reasonable” for the current situation.
He added that Singapore is working hand in hand with different healthcare stakeholders on improving its testing capabilities for the virus.
“(We are) seeing how we can use these capabilities to enhance our hospital and health services’ ability to detect, screen and confirm the presence of such infections,” Mr Mak said.
Additionally, Mr Wong highlighted that the Government is all set to “marshal all available resources” to combat the spreading of the virus.
“Our posture is to anticipate and move as swiftly as we can. But every action we take really has to be based on evidence, data and international medical guidelines. I don’t think we want to – on the basis of one or two reports, not even sure if it’s conclusive – overreact and overdo things. That’s not the Singapore way,” he said.