Chinese scientists at the front of that country’s outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have not been particularly accessible to foreign media. Many have been overwhelmed trying to understand their epidemic and combat it, and responding to media requests, especially from journalists outside of China, has not been a top priority.
Science has tried to interview George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for 2 months. Last week he responded.
Gao oversees 2000 employees—one-fifth the staff size of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—and he remains an active researcher himself. In January, he was part of a team that did the first isolation and sequencing of severe acute respiratory syndrome 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19. He co-authored two widely read papers published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) that provided some of the first detailed epidemiology and clinical features of the disease, and has published three more papers on COVID-19 in The Lancet.
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His team also provided important data to a joint commission between Chinese researchers and a team of international scientists, organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), that wrote a landmark report after touring the country to understand the response to the epidemic.
First trained as a veterinarian, Gao later earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Oxford and did postdocs there and at Harvard University, specializing in immunology and virology. His research specializes in viruses that have fragile lipid membranes called envelopes—a group that includes SARS-CoV-2—and how they enter cells and also move between species.
Gao answered Science’s questions over several days via text, voicemails, and phone conversations. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What can other countries learn from the way China has approached COVID-19?
A: Social distancing is the essential strategy for the control of any infectious diseases, especially if they are respiratory infections. First, we used “nonpharmaceutical strategies,” because you don’t have any specific inhibitors or drugs and you don’t have any vaccines. Second, you have to make sure you isolate any cases. Third, close contacts should be in quarantine: We spend a lot of time trying to find all these close contacts, and to make sure they are quarantined and isolated. Fourth, suspend public gatherings. Fifth, restrict movement, which is why you have a lockdown, the cordon sanitaire in French.
Q: What mistakes are other countries making?
A: The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.
Q: But what will happen when China returns to normal? Do you think enough people have become infected so that herd immunity will keep the virus at bay?
A: We definitely don’t have herd immunity yet. But we are waiting for more definitive results from antibody tests that can tell us how many people really have been infected.
Q: So what is the strategy now? Buying time to find effective medicines?
A: Yes—our scientists are working on both vaccines and drugs.
Q: Many scientists consider remdesivir to be the most promising drug now being tested. When do you think clinical trials in China of the drug will have data?
A: In April.
Q: Have Chinese scientists developed animal models that you think are robust enough to study pathogenesis and test drugs and vaccines?
A: At the moment, we are using both monkeys and transgenic mice that have ACE2, the human receptor for the virus. The mouse model is widely used in China for drug and vaccine assessment, and I think there are at least a couple papers coming out about the monkey models soon. I can tell you that our monkey model works.
Q: What do you think of President Donald Trump referring to the new coronavirus as the “China virus” or the “Chinese virus”?
A: It’s definitely not good to call it the Chinese virus. The virus belongs to the Earth. The virus is our common enemy—not the enemy of any person or country.