This Virus Expert Detected the First Case of COVID-19 Outside of China
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When China reported the viral outbreak of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Dec. 31, 2019, the Thai government immediately sprung into action.
Thailand sees 11 million Chinese tourists every year, and the government was concerned about the novel coronavirus making its way across the border.
They began proactively measuring temperatures of travelers who arrived at Bangkok airports from Wuhan. People with high temperatures gave respiratory samples that were tested for the virus.
Some of the samples were sent to the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Centre at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok. The laboratory is one of a network of confirmed testing centers across the country, set up in case of an outbreak of a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-like disease.
For laboratory head Supaporn Wacharapluesadee, it was business as usual. Her team’s job was to investigate potential infectious diseases and contaminations across the country.
The 15 researchers — 11 women and 4 men — quickly developed their own way to detect COVID-19 by modifying methods used to detect other coronaviruses.
Supaporn Wacharapluesadee works with her team to investigate potential infectious diseases in Thailand. The team of 15 researchers quickly developed their own way to detect COVID-19 by modifying methods used to detect other coronaviruses.
“It was routine work,” Wacharapluesadee told Global Citizen. “We weren’t scared, no one said they didn’t want to come into work.”
“The possibility of cases being identified in other countries was not unexpected,” it said.
Two days later, Wacharapluesadee’s team detected the first COVID-19 case in Thailand, which was confirmed by the Department of Medical Science laboratory — making it the first case to be detected outside China.
“At the time, we felt it was just a task from the government. I did not think it would be a pandemic disease like this,” Wacharapluesadee, who has been researching emerging infectious diseases for over two decades, said.
Wacharapluesadee and her team are no strangers to detecting viruses. During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, the laboratory supported Thailand’s ministry of health by testing suspected Ebola cases in the country, although they did not detect any. But in 2015, the team did detect the country’s first case of MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus), which was further confirmed by two additional labs.
As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, Wacharapluesadee and her team were busy. The country faced a few local outbreaks, including one at a boxing stadiumand another when a group of men went on a night out in Bangkok.
“We locked down and had a curfew. Everyone stayed at home,” Wacharapluesadee said of the immediate response to the outbreaks.
In January, only two laboratories in Thailand could test for COVID-19.
“During the first few months of the year, it was very tough,” Wacharapluesadee said. “We worked 24 hours in the lab because we had a commitment to the government.”
In April, the government set up a project to enhance the COVID-19 testing capacity of laboratories across the country.
Thailand has had just over 5,700 COVID-19 cases, with 60 deaths, prompting the United Nations to call it “a success story in dealing with the pandemic.” In November, there were only a handful of domestic cases.
Wacharapluesadee credits the government for its proactive response. She also credits Thai people with following strict preventative measures, such as mask wearing and frequent hand-washing, and believes the warm climate has also contributed to keeping infection rates low.
Cultural factors play a role too, she said.
“We put both our hands together to greet others. This is called ‘wai’ in Thai. We don’t kiss or shake hands to say, ‘Hi.’ We also take off our shoes before getting into our house, so [it is possible] we don’t carry the pathogen from outside the home inside,” she said.
“We have been wearing masks since January,” she added.
(L) People take photos with holiday decorations in Bangkok on Dec. 22, 2020. People are required a mask while out in public at all times. (R) An empty Suvarnabhumi Airport, which is usually the 17th busiest airport in the world, in August 2020.
The Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Centre is a WHO collaborating center for research and training on viral zoonoses — diseases which can be transferred from animals to humans.
It is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tool (ACT) Accelerator, which launched in April and is working to speed up efforts against the virus. The coalition, established by the WHO and partners, is working to quickly develop tests, treatments, and vaccines, while also strengthening the world’s most fragile health systems.
The center’s success in detecting COVID-19 is in large part due to its extensive 20 years of experience researching coronaviruses in bats and other wild animals.
The center produces research and publishes their findings in academic journals, but Wacharapluesadee said they do a lot more.
“We do not just stop at publication,” she said. “We work with the government to use our data for better planning.”
Although in the case of COVID-19 there is no clear evidence of transmission from bats to humans, Wacharapluesadee explained that, often, viruses can spread from wild animals to intermediate animals — such as livestock — and finally, to humans.
The lab uses the “one health” approach, recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and the environment to optimize health, and collaborates with Thailand’s departments of wildlife and forestry.
“When we find any viruses, we try to answer if there is a threat to humans,” she said.
Wacharapluesadee in her office on Dec. 18, 2020. The Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Centre's success in detecting COVID-19 is in large part due to their experience researching coronaviruses in bats and other wild animals.
Wacharapluesadee also travels to various provinces where viruses have been detected to bring knowledge and data to community leaders, such as local public health officers and village health volunteers.
In 2005, after publishing a report about fruit bats in several provinces of Thailand infected with the Nipah virus, she traveled to the Chonburi province where the biggest fruit bat colony was found and told locals that although the virus was detected in the bats, there was “no need to kill the bats. People and wildlife can stay together.”
She says working with local public health officers builds community knowledge and is key to ensuring this work is sustainable.
“When I go to the villages, they don’t know me, so using local people helps me [integrate into] the network,” she explained.
The knowledge sharing works both ways, Wacharapluesadee said.
“I feel better every time I go to the field, talk to the villagers to hear their thoughts, and [consider] if those thoughts can be applied for emerging pandemic control,” she added. “Even if the villagers do not have PhDs, I learn a lot.”
Following the A-Team is a content series that profiles the women working on the ground to combat COVID-19 via the ACT-Accelerator.
Launched in April by seven global partners, the ACT-Accelerator is a unique coalition aimed at accelerating global efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic. Its members are working together to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines as quickly as possible, while also strengthening the world’s most fragile health systems.
The organization desperately needs financial support from governments around the world. You can join us in calling on world leaders to fund the ACT-Accelerator by taking action here.