A leading Belgian scientist has criticised federal health minister Maggie De Block over the government’s apparent lack of awareness of the possible consequences of the Covid-19 epidemic, if and when it reaches Belgium.
Dr. Marc Wathelet is a molecular biologist who led a team of researchers in the United States looking into different strains of coronavirus, in particular SARS-CoV, which caused the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003-2004.
“Dear Minister,” he begins. “You have assured the country that we are prepared to confront the new coronavirus, and yet certain key front-line personnel, nurses and doctors, are not reassured, and neither am I.”
The letter goes on to speak of a dossier which he sent to the health ministry via its website on 12 February, explaining how if the virus were to infect only 1% of the population, it would lead to a “hospital crisis caused by a shortage of beds”.
The dossier, he says, has received no reply.
In an interview published this week in Le Soir, he says, De Block raised the issue of availability of beds, and stated that the country has enough beds and sufficient treatment capacity. “When you compare [the virus] with winter flu, and the number of older people who are usually hospitalised, the situation is identical,” De Block said.
However, Dr. Wathelet argues, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that some 16% of people infected by Covid-19 and showing symptoms are seriously ill enough to require hospitalisation.
“And the flu?” he asks. “About 0.2%. The relation between the two? A factor of 80, so it’s not an identical situation – the first essential point that has been ignored.”
A WHO mission to China has recently reported on its own findings in the affected region, independent on the figures provided by the Chinese authorities. According to Dr. Wathelet, those findings show that of patients presenting symptoms of infection, 80% are mild cases who are able to stay at home; 13% are severe cases that require hospital treatment, and 6% are critical cases that require intensive care.
“Would you be so obliging, Madame Minister, you who have access to all information on the Belgian hospital network, as to calculate for our information: from what number of symptomatic cases will the Belgian hospital system run short of hospital beds for those severe and critical cases?” he asks.
And he is critical, too, of the “cacophony of information” not only in the media and online, but also within the health ministry and the public heath organisation Sciensano, which appears to believe that Covid-19 is a sort of SARS II, and that the measures considered appropriate for that earlier outbreak will also be appropriate now.
“Unfortunately that is a false equivalence and it is urgently necessary to understand the essential difference between the propagation of the virus responsible for SARS and this new coronavirus,” he says.
In brief, that difference is that SARS was transmitted by touching surfaces and by sneezing, which limits it to a range of about one metre. By contrast, Covid-19 is also transmitted by aerosol, which includes a wide range of possible vectors, including breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing, raising of dust, spraying of liquids, toilet flushing or any activities which generates aerosol particles or droplets.
“That is something,” he concludes, “which changes the picture completely as far as isolation measures are concerned.”