The outbreak hit many countries in Asia several weeks earlier – and some have been praised for containing the number of infections. For example, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan all kept case numbers relatively low – despite their proximity to mainland China.
What did they do differently – and are there any lessons for other countries?
Health experts agree on the same measures for containing the outbreak – test widely, isolate those infected, and encourage social distancing. Such measures are being adopted to varying degrees in the West now – but a key difference is that many countries didn’t act as quickly.
“The UK and US lost an opportunity,” says Tikki Pangestu, a former director of research policy at the World Health Organization (WHO). “They had two months from what happened in China, yet there was this perception that ‘China is very far away and nothing’s going to happen’.”
China first reported cases of “mysterious Sars-like pneumonia” to the WHO on 31 December. At this point there was no confirmed human-to-human transmission, and little was known about the virus, but within three days Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong had all stepped up screening at border points – Taiwan even checked passengers on flights from Wuhan before they got off the plane.
As scientists learned more about the virus, it became apparent that people without symptoms could still be contagious. So testing would be crucial.
Cases in South Korea spiked initially. However, it swiftly developed a test for the virus – and has now tested more than 290,000 people. It conducts about 10,000 tests daily for free.
“The way they stepped up and screened the population was really remarkable,” says Ooi Eng Eong, a professor in emerging infectious diseases at the National University of Singapore.