KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will maintain its current strategy of identifying Covid-19 cases even as scientists are increasingly finding that the disease can spread much more easily compared to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), though not having the same lethal effects.
Health Director-General Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said Malaysia will continue screening travellers at entry points, and quarantine them if they were found to have symptoms.
“We will actively study and monitor the virus in the community and those with severe acute respiratory illnesses, ” he said in an interview with The Star.
As of Feb 20, the ministry had tested more than 922 suspected cases (patients under investigation or PUI) and close contact persons, and only 22 or 2.38% were found to be positive cases.
“What does that tell us? That means the virus is not in our community yet, ” he said, indicating that local transmission of Covid-19 is still very limited.
Moreover, he said the 2.38% included screening those with no symptoms despite having contact with a Covid-19-positive person.
Dr Noor Hisham was asked whether Malaysia should review its strategy after Singapore’s National Development Minister, Lawrence Wong, said that the mode of transmission for Covid-19 has more similarities with H1N1 than SARS, where it spread as quickly as influenza based on observations in the rest of the world.
Researchers at Singapore’s National Centre for Infectious Diseases looking at Covid-19 cases in Singapore have confirmed this, he said in a report carried by CNA on Feb 14, where he added that the Covid-19 fatality rate in China is significantly lower than that of SARS.
Wong pointed out that like H1N1, those with Covid-19 are infectious even when they show mild symptoms.
Those with mild symptoms may have taken the disease lightly, and may continue going out or make no change to their routines, thus contributing to a rapid spread of the disease.
Dr Noor Hisham said the ministry would continue to screen the population like it had done for H1N1 from cases seen in designated health facilities, where it can collect high quality data on the health condition of the people, including the prevalence of diseases.
Universiti Malaya academician Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit said scientists are still learning about the new virus, especially its transmission mechanism.
“Once we have a better understanding of it, then we will need to adjust our strategy accordingly.
“Remember that the SARS virus infected just over 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide over eight months.
“Covid-19 cases have surpassed SARS many folds in just two months.
“When SARS hit the world in 2003, there were fewer people travelling globally (fewer cheap flights then), ” said Dr Lam, who added that merely restricting flights to and from China may be insufficient to prevent the spread.
The Health Ministry’s former infectious disease chief, Datuk Dr Christopher Lee, said there was no need to change the overall direction at this stage.
“It should still be a containment strategy, but we should actively improve overall levels of personal hygiene with regards to contact and droplet spread, ” he said, adding that if there is active community transmission, the country needs to keep people with symptoms away from public spaces (masked if they have to leave home), and educate employers and schools.
There should also be easy access to hand sanitisers in public places, while building and facility owners should intensify cleaning of commonly touched surfaces, he added.
“We have focused a lot on what the government is doing to keep us safe, but we need the public to take ownership as well.”