SINGAPORE: Singapore has to be prepared that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak could be worse than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday (Jan 27).
But Mr Wong, who co-chairs a multi-ministry task force spearheading Singapore's response to the outbreak, said it was too early to tell at this stage how the Wuhan virus compares to SARS.
"The medical experts tell us as of now that the virus is not as infectious as SARS, (the) fatality rate is lower as of now," he said.
"But the situation is evolving so quickly, and as you all heard from the Chinese authorities yesterday, the virus is getting stronger, the number of infections is likely to rise.
"So we just have to be psychologically prepared that this can get worse than SARS."
Back in 2003, the SARS coronavirus infected 238 people in Singapore and killed 33, including doctors and healthcare workers. The virus spread through close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.
As for the Wuhan coronavirus, Mr Wong said: "Some of you asked: What if there is a risk of infections spreading even before symptoms show.
"If that were to happen, I think the spread of the virus will be much faster because we are unable to identify and isolate unlike SARS - we had the means to because of symptoms."
Nevertheless, Mr Wong said there is no conclusive evidence yet to prove that the Wuhan virus is capable of spreading pre-symptoms.
"We are in consultation with our medical experts on what the evidence for this is, because I think this is still quite preliminary," he said.
"It's certainly something we are watching out for, because if indeed this is happening, then certainly, we will have to do more and escalate our measures even further."
Mr Wong said there are many "imponderables" and "uncertainties" regarding the Wuhan virus, adding that Singapore has to be prepared that things could worsen with more cases in China and abroad.
"And as I said, be psychologically prepared that this may take some time to unravel, but be assured too that you have a system in place," he stated.
Mr Wong stressed that Singapore is better prepared to deal with an outbreak after learning lessons from the SARS episode.
"We have put in place inter-ministry coordination mechanisms. We have put in place drawer plans for a full range of different scenarios of the virus outbreak," he said.
"We want to assure Singaporeans that we are (better prepared), and that's why our message is: Keep calm, carry on with our lives, but all of us work together, take the necessary precautions and we can overcome this together."
Authorities on Monday announced more stringent measures to combat the Wuhan virus, including expanded travel advisories for China, stepped-up checks at borders and compulsory leave of absences for some individuals returning from China.
Ministry of Health director-designate of medical services Kenneth Mak said the measures are "appropriate, ready and reasonable" for the current situation.
Mr Mak also said Singapore is collaborating with different healthcare stakeholders on improving its testing capabilities for the virus.
"(We are) seeing how we can use these capabilities to enhance our hospital and health services’ ability to detect, screen and confirm the presence of such infections," he said.
Minister Wong said the Government is prepared to "marshal all available resources" to fight the virus' spread.
"Our posture is to anticipate and move as swiftly as we can. But every action we take really has to be based on evidence, data and international medical guidelines," he said.
"I don't think we want to - on the basis of one or two reports, not even sure if it's conclusive - overreact and overdo things. That's not the Singapore way."
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