Lax cargo crew quarantine, ‘wild card’ to blame for Taiwan, East Asia’s Covid-19 peak
TAIPEI – A little over a month ago, no one in Taiwan predicted a new Covid-19 epidemic, let alone one that would occur an entire year after the pandemic was tackled.
But on Friday, May 21, Taiwan’s Central Outbreak Command (CECC) reported 312 new locally transmitted cases and three imported cases, the seventh day in a row that the island has recorded more than 100 local cases.
“One of the main issues Taiwan faces is having been too successful (to contain Covid-19), it has missed all the struggles other countries have had, so it has a lot of catching up to do,” he said. said Professor Chi Chun-huei, a public health specialist at the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.
Daily numbers rose from tens to hundreds in less than a week, fueled by clusters within Taiwan’s flagship China Airlines, and a quarantine hotel near Taoyuan International Airport where airline crews aircraft were quarantined. Then local cases began to appear in northern Taiwan.
How did it go on an island that had isolated itself from the outside world a year ago?
Experts said lax regulations on aircrews flying cargo planes, even though borders were closed to visitors, were partly to blame for the current outbreak.
Amid a global shortage of automotive chips, Taiwan’s key microchip industry has continued to operate, even during the pandemic. This prompted health authorities to design an expedited quarantine procedure that dramatically shortened the isolation time for pilots.
Crew members only had to quarantine five days, compared to 14 for regular travelers. On April 15, this deadline was reduced to only three days. The crew members were asked to keep an eye on their own health for the other 11.
During the self-monitoring phase, the crew member could meet with family and friends, but they were advised to stay away from public areas. But not all pilots complied.
Dr Chi Chia-yu, associate researcher at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and Immunization, said three days was not enough to ensure someone was free from Covid.
“Screening after just three days cannot confirm whether a person has been infected or not because the viral load in their blood may still be quite low,” he said.
Additionally, the quarantine hotel near the airport also broke regulations, mixing quarantined customers with regular customers and causing another cluster of infection.
Just when it looked like the CECC was in control of the airline clusters, another wild card was thrown into the mix, when crews brought back the most contagious UK variant of Covid-19, Professor Chi said.
Clusters bloomed in Yilan County, Taipei and New Taipei City, and continued to grow.
In confirmed cases, around 40% have no symptoms, while others may take a week or more to develop symptoms.
“Both groups are most contagious within the first 10 to 12 days after being infected. And they tend to run because they don’t have symptoms, ”said Professor Chi.
Currently, less than 1% of Taiwanese are vaccinated, as Taiwan’s domestic vaccines are still in phase 2 clinical trials while imported vaccines are slowly arriving in small batches.
“We only have the AstraZeneca vaccine available, and with its reports of blood clots in European recipients and Taiwan’s performance with Covid-19, citizens and medical staff have chosen to wait,” said the Dr Chi.
But Prof Chi said early beatings shouldn’t have been reserved for frontline medical workers, given the low number of domestic cases.
“Airline crews are among the highest risk groups. If these pilots had been vaccinated, we probably wouldn’t have this epidemic now.”
But the professor said the outbreak was an opportunity for the development of domestic vaccines. The island’s initial success in reducing the spread made it impossible for local scientists to conduct Phase 3 clinical trials – in which vaccines are tested in the ‘real world’, an environment where confirmed cases are endemic . One “positive aspect of this outbreak is how we stand a chance of doing the phase 3 trials,” Professor Chi said.