School of Population Health

Research priorities set for novel coronavirus

Image McLaws WHO Coronavirus

Renowned infection control expert, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws from the SPHCM, has been contributing to WHO efforts to help develop a roadmap to end the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Professor McLaws attended an urgent meeting on 11-12 February at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva along with 400 experts, NGOs and funders.
Professor McLaws contributed to two of the nine urgent research priorities identified during the forum – infection prevention and control, and epidemiology.   

During the forum, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tasked experts to identify important gaps in current knowledge about the new disease and accelerate knowledge gains to bring an end to the outbreak.
According to Professor McLaws, an important requirement for improving knowledge about the virus is an interdisciplinary approach, and the importance of considering the ethics of  all prevention, treatment and control strategies.

“Pressing issues include safe vaccination and therapeutics, research into whether COVID19 and any other coronavirus will cross animal species, and the importance of asymptomatic and symptomatic transmission and possible outcomes of mild disease and severe disease requiring experimental treatment,” says Professor McLaws.   

“Hubei has had an unprecedented challenge and an initial mortality rate much greater than across 29 countries outside of China, which is likely more to do with China being overwhelmed with cases needing hospitalisation and care, rather than severity.”

The mortality from COVID19 is highest in patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  

“Because of my previous epidemiology work on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), I was asked to join the epidemiology group which was illuminating and challenging.

From the start to the end of the two-day meeting, the number of COVID19 cases had doubled, and surpassed the number of deaths during SARS outbreak in 2003.

“COVID19 has not only killed more patients than SARS, it is also highly disruptive to society.”

Prevention is better than experimental treatment with unknown outcomes

While many important epidemiological elements of the disease are unknown, the infection prevention and control are standard, explains Professor McLaws.

“For China this has included some great social messaging about hand hygiene, cough etiquette, staying home if you have a cough or fever or have had contact with someone with the disease, and environmental cleaning of public areas and at home,” explains Professor McLaws.  

“For the Sydney community, for example, there is no need to wear a mask; it’s unnecessary and ineffective unless your hand hygiene is also excellent as these two measures are a bundle, and masks are not a single prevention strategy.

“If you have to travel to China or have family in China you will be asked to wear a mask - choose a clean dry surgical mask of high quality, and clean your hands before you put it on and after you dispose of it carefully in a paper bag, and then into a bin.

“Do not use a P2 mask (also referred to as N95) - these are for healthcare workers performing high risk procedures, and we need to keep these important equipment available for them.”

More information

Professor McLaws talks about COVID-19, how it compares to SARS, and when we can expect a vaccine here.

UNSW is closely monitoring the outbreak of COVID-19 and is supporting any affected students and staff based on information from the federal Department of Health and NSW Health. Keep up to date with the latest here and Frequently Asked Questions here.

Watch Professor Raina MacIntyre, Head of the Biosecurity Program at The Kirby Institute, present an update on COVID-19 here.

Image Coronavirus WHO meeting

Top image: Professor Mary-Louise McLaws (third from the left) with other experts and attendees at the urgent meeting on the novel coronavirus at the World Health Organization

Bottom image: World Health Organization meeting

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Professor Mary-Louise Mclaws