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Expert warns not to let seasonal flu mingle with COVID-19 this autumn

China Daily| Updated: 2020-08-18

Noted respiratory disease expert Wang Chen advised Chinese public health authorities to expand the scope of vaccination for the flu before October to prevent the possible concurrence of the flu season with the COVID-19 pandemic, which may pose a serious public health risk.

"The COVID-19 situation in China is generally manageable, with occasional small outbreaks in parts of the country," Wang, president of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said in a speech at the 22nd annual meeting of the China Association for Science and Technology on Aug 14.

"So now a lot of people are saying we have entered the post-COVID era. Let's be clear: Now is not the post-COVID era, we are actually still in the thick of it," he said. "There are so many things we don't understand about the disease. It is too early to discuss what stage we are in, especially when we don't have concrete evidence of how the epidemic can progress."

Wang said what worries him right now is the possible return of COVID-19 in autumn and winter, and whether a new COVID-19 outbreak could mix with the seasonal flu, creating a new complicated and challenging public health situation.

If the flu and COVID-19 were to exist concurrently, given how similar some of their symptoms are, it would be more difficult and costly to diagnose and quarantine patients, he said.

"In fact, there is quite a sizable number of people who are killed by the flu each year. If the two diseases were to mingle, their impact on the public and social stability should not be underestimated."

As a result, Wang advised the public to take the flu shot before the end of September, especially for medical personnel, the elderly, essential workers, children, people with chronic conditions and other vulnerable demographics.

The purpose behind the expanding scope of vaccination, Wang said, is to nip as many foreseeable public health risks as possible in the bud, so that society can focus its limited resources on bigger issues.

"Timely flu vaccination is the most cost-effective way to cope with a flu season," he said.

A country pulling out all the stops to fight an infectious disease for a prolonged period is unsustainable, ineffective and extremely costly, he said.

"We must take appropriate measures in accordance with the risk, and based on sensitive, accurate and timely monitoring of the situation," Wang added.

The scope of the monitoring should also cover areas that are not typically on an epidemiologist's radar, such as cold-chain logistics for seafood, Wang said, adding the COVID-19 outbreaks in Wuhan, Beijing and Dalian were all related to seafood markets.

Seafood manufacturing companies in South Korea and the United States had also reported outbreaks in March and July, respectively.

When a shipment of seafood is frozen and transported, the novel coronavirus may also be preserved on the surface of the package due to the low temperature, he said. The contaminated shipment could then travel around the world.

"When dealing with a pandemic like this, we can no longer analyze and handle the situation on a case-by-case basis. We must find some overarching patterns that allow us to establish systematic and workable control measures," he said.