Malta may have prevented deaths by obtaining invaluable information about how the coronavirus spreads “that other countries were salivating over”, according to an infectious diseases expert.

This happened thanks to contacts made by Gauden Galea, who has been a member of the World Health Organisation team in China since shortly after the coronavirus outbreak was announced in January.

“Thanks to his contacts in China and the Malta Trust Foundation, we were able to have a 1.5 hour teleconference with one of the top respiratory specialists in the city of Wuhan which was the epicentre of the disease,” said Neville Calleja, associate professor at the University’s department of public health and one of the country’s top infectious disease specialists.

“This was invaluable when it came to understanding how it is contracted and spreads and how we should treat it. China has had the most cases, so no other country has their level of experience and expertise right now.”

Calleja also praised the diplomatic efforts of the foreign affairs ministry which has been liaising with several embassies as well as the Maltese Ambassador in China to obtain badly needed medical equipment and medicine for hospitals.

He also believes that Malta’s decision to copy measures taken by Asian countries – rather than European – was the right one.

If things continue as they are, we should see the number of cases rising to around 180 by March 23

“We are mimicking places like Singapore, where businesses are still open but people are observing social distancing. While some people are critical of the fact that flights were still being allowed to come in from the outside, passenger numbers have dropped on their own, so even that is reducing the risk of infection.”

Malta has had a slightly slower growth rate of cases than its European counterparts, helped by the fact that it is an island and can control its borders better, Calleja noted.

“The virus is behaving quite regularly here in terms of how it is reproducing,” he said.

“If things continue as they are, we should see the number of cases rising to around 180 by March 23, according to Dr Dominic Cortis, a University of Malta lecturer and actuary. ".

"What we’re aiming to do is flatten the curve. This means we acknowledge there will be a rise in cases, but by adhering to social distancing and school closures we will manage to spread them out, so the healthcare system doesn’t get overwhelmed. China has effectively chopped the head off the monster. While they may have 80,000 cases, they have prevented millions more.

“The Chinese also learned that it’s important to stay away from people outside the home, but it’s OK to behave normally inside the household if no-one has shown signs of infection.

“The elderly are the most vulnerable. It was the correct decision to close churches first.”

However, Calleja warns things could still get out of hand if measures are relaxed too soon.

Even if the virus goes away, there is still a risk of it coming back in a fresh wave if we let our guard down. What Malta does not want, he said, is to have to make the same difficult decisions as Italy, “where those who are over 80 are no longer being treated because the healthcare system is so overrun”.

Calleja and his fellow members of the scientific community are behaving like they are in wartime.

“Politics don’t come into it. We have been openly sharing information and research where we can,” he said.

He also clarified a question repeatedly asked by Times of Malta readers: ‘Given that the first case of the virus jumped from a bat to a human, can pets contract the virus?’

“While there have been no cases of transmissions via pets, there has been a case or two of pets carrying the virus in their coats,” he said.

“So, if you are in quarantine, contact with your pet should be minimised.”

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