For the University of Hong Kong MPH Program, the start of the pandemic took place close to home – prompting a quick response from the school. Professor Keiji Fukuda, former director of the School of Public Health at HKU, says, “I was on a family Christmas holiday in Japan in late 2019 when colleagues from WHO alerted me about cases of an unexplained illness in China. From my previous experience working on events such as the emergence of avian and pandemic influenza, SARS and MERS, I knew that the situation could remain limited or quickly escalate.”
“Given the faculty and School’s deep and relatively unique experience with previous emerging infectious diseases, and Hong Kong’s close proximity and relations with Mainland China, I knew if the situation escalated, the School would be busy. Once the Hong Kong Government informed the public about cases in early January 2020, it was clear that further spread was highly likely and that many of us would be deeply involved in the response,” Fukuda recalls.
Two concerns drove their response: “The first was how to manage and balance the safety of School students and staff while maintaining continuity of teaching and other work. The second concern was making sure that the School staff contributed to local and global responses as much as possible. Many of the School faculty members are laboratory scientists, epidemiologists and clinicians with extensive experience working on previous emerging infectious disease outbreaks and pathogens.”
“As a result, School of Public Health staff conducted, and participated in, many of the world’s earliest and most critical scientific studies related to COVID-19. For example, by mid-January 2020, we had developed a protocol for detecting COVID-19, which was one of the earliest diagnostic methods shared on the WHO website. Reagents and methods were shared with over 70 countries and territories. One of our studies modelled and forecast the spread of infection across Mainland China and the world through a mathematical dispersion model. The projections, produced in late January 2020, were in many ways materialised.”
Research from the University of Hong Kong shaped pandemic response. Fukuda says, “Our research published in April 2020 also confirmed that face masks could help limit the transmission of pre-COVID-19 respiratory viruses from symptomatic people. The finding attracted significant coverage from social media and mainstream news outlets around the world.”
One observation made at the school was about the key players in COVID-19 responses. “Unlike most outbreaks, COVID-19 was managed at the level of Heads of State, rather than at the level of Ministries of Health. This occurred because countries generally were unprepared, and the impact of COVID-19 was so profound, similar to a war or a severe economic depression. Many countries approached COVID-19 as an individual national or local issue rather than as a collective global challenge. If countries want to avoid another COVID-19-like situation, they need to make the domestic political, bureaucratic and financial commitment to make sure their capacities are adequately prepared for another major pandemic and to adopt the political position that pandemics are global rather than national events,” Fukuda says.
The school also observed a need for better global networks. “On a global level, the biggest challenge with COVID-19 is the disconnect among policymakers, practitioners and scientists. The global scientific community has collectively risen to the challenge of COVID-19 by innovating and deploying in real time a wide range of collaborative tools and platforms to facilitate epidemic nowcasting. In contrast, ineffective leadership, lack of coordination and inconsistent risk communication have seriously undermined epidemic nowcasting (and, more broadly, pandemic response). This disconnect must be remedied in order to align evidence synthesis with public health operations and policies, with political implementation for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as future emergencies,” Fukuda adds.