Cross Country Checkup·ASK ME ANYTHING

5 lessons about COVID-19 from doctor who led WHO mission to China

Canadian doctor Bruce Aylward led the World Health Organization's COVID-19 mission to China. He joined Duncan McCue to answer listeners' questions about the novel coronavirus for Checkup's Ask Me Anything segment.

Bruce Aylward took questions from callers on Cross Country Checkup

Bruce Aylward, team lead on the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, speaks to the media during a press conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 25, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Each week, Cross Country Checkup devotes the last half hour to an interview with a high-profile newsmaker, celebrity, thinker or cultural figure who takes calls from listeners. 

Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the World Health Organization's director general, led the WHO's COVID-19 mission to China.

Based in Geneva, he's originally from St. John's, N.L.

He joined WHO in 1992 after completing his medical training at Memorial University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

He joined Duncan McCue to answer listeners' questions about the novel coronavirus for Checkup's Ask Me Anything segment. Here are some of his responses.

How can people protect themselves from COVID-19?

Aylward told McCue that the most important steps people can take to protect themselves from COVID-19 generally fall under the usual best practices for personal hygiene.

Those include washing your hands regularly and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

Aylward said regular use of hand sanitizer is a good — sometimes better — alternative to washing your hands, especially when your only option is a public washroom.

Washing your hands remains a top personal hygiene tip. (Shutterstock)

"Washing your hands with soap and water is complex. You go into the bathrooms and [you're] touching, you know, all sorts of things. So hand sanitizer in the pocket is often the easiest thing," he told McCue.

Third, he advised Canadians to learn what symptoms are possibly indicative of COVID-19 — including fever and dry cough — and which aren't, so they know when to ask a doctor for advice and when not to.

"It's not a cold. It's not a runny nose. It's not a sore throat. Those are relatively rare symptoms in COVID," he said.

Is Canada prepared?

Aylward praised China's swift response to the virus following the outbreak, which began in Wuhan, Hubei province. Thanks to rapid action including detection, quarantines and public education, the virus wasn't able to wreak havoc in the country's 30 other provinces.

He's also been impressed with Canada's response so far and thinks it should be able to handle a larger outbreak in the country if it were to happen.

"I've no doubt that Canada can manage that kind of planning from what I've seen. Again, the SARS outbreak in 2003 really helped Canada get a jump on this one," he said.

"You made big investments and they're starting to pay off. You can see it already."

Should we stop shaking hands?

Barbara Robinson from Guelph, Ont,. noted that while there have been many advisories in Canada about washing your hands or covering your mouth, there have been few warnings about social interactions like shaking hands — interactions that, if one were to stop, might be considered rude.

Aylward said Public Health Canada has likely issued the most important advisories based on the number of reported cases so far.

A pedestrian wears a protective mask as she walks in the winter weather downtown in Toronto on Feb. 26, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

But if the number of cases continues to climb, and as we learn more about the disease, that advice may change.

"I think one of the toughest things for the public is: we say, you know, trust us. Follow the information. But the information is going to change all the time. And we're going to have to learn about this disease together," he said.

Aylward said due to the current COVID-19 threat, he avoids contact when possible.

"I don't shake hands, for the record," said Aylward. "I don't hug, either."

Are older people more susceptible?

Twitter user @MHolota asked how severe the virus can be for a self-described "healthy 33-year-old," as opposed to older people with pre-existing conditions.

Aylward noted that COVID-19 has progressed from mild to serious in some otherwise healthy people in their 30s or 40s — and health officials have yet to understand why.

He also warned that anyone who gets the virus could pass it onto others, even if they don't get a serious form of the illness themselves.

"Those people, the mild ones, can also spread to the older populations, people with heart disease, or whatever. And those are the people that are going to be at risk of the really severe consequences," he cautioned.

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Is COVID-19 really worse than the seasonal flu?

Janine Imada from Cambridge, Ont., asked whether COVID-19 has earned the worldwide concern and coverage in the news, compared to the seasonal flu.

Aylward was adamant that the concern is not an overreaction.

"This is more dangerous than the flu. Very definitely," he said.

Compared to the seasonal flu, he said, there is currently no vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Combining that with a higher mortality rate compared to the regular flu makes it particularly worrisome, he said.

"This is right in that sweet spot where it can cause devastation to a health system, the health of the population, the economy and society. This is not to be treated lightly."

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Richard Raycraft.

To hear more from Bruce Aylward, click the Listen button at the top of the story to hear the full Ask Me Anything segment.


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