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To fight coronavirus spread, promote education, not travel bans, says Mason professor

January 29, 2020

The international health community is grappling with how to best curb another widespread coronavirus outbreak. The virus has killed at least 80 people so far in China and has reached across the globe. The World Health Organization had declined to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, saying it’s still relatively contained, because there are no known cases in which human-to-human transmission has occurred outside of China.

Nevertheless, the world health community is getting concerned, as it should be, according to George Mason University professor Gregory Koblentz. In the United States, airports are starting to screen travelers arriving from Wuhan. In China, authorities have established travel restrictions on at least 11 cities, potentially affecting around 30 million people.

But widespread quarantines or travel bans aren’t the answers to containing the deadly virus, Koblentz said.

“Widespread travel bans are ineffective and even counterproductive,” said Koblentz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and an expert on biodefense and biosecurity. “The idea that you can quarantine the entire population of large cities is just not feasible.”

Instead, health officials should emphasize educating the public about how to stem the spread of the virus, along with establishing trust between health care authorities and the general population, said Koblentz.

Gregory Koblentz

If people want to travel, they will find a way to travel, but they will be secretive about it, said Koblentz. 

“Then when they do get sick, they will avoid seeking medical attention because they don’t want to get in trouble,” said Koblentz. “A travel ban basically means that people will avoid getting help and notifying public health authorities, and the spread of the virus will continue, undetected.”

Instead, Koblentz recommended that health officials work to get the public on their side by communicating with them about the symptoms and when to seek medical care. 

It’s also crucially important, said Koblentz, that the international public health community is gathering and sharing information. Chinese health authorities have posted the full genome of the latest outbreak into the NIH genetic sequence database and the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data portal, which Koblentz described as key to developing diagnostic tools. But there’s more to be done.

“These are the early days of response, so our understanding could change,” Koblentz said. “We don’t yet understand exactly how the virus spreads. How quickly do people become symptomatic? What kind of contact facilitates the spread of the virus? We still have a lot to learn.”

Gregory Koblentz is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and director of the Master’s in Biodefense and PhD in Biodefense. He can be reached at 703-993-1266 or gkoblent@gmu.edu

For more information, contact Anna Stolley Persky at 703-993-8813 or apersky@gmu.edu

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.