CORONAVIRUS: Borough’s covid expert marks paper anniversary for study showing how easily Covid-19 can be shared

Most people on a bus wearing a mask, Hubei province, 23 January 2020 Picture: Walter Grassroot

A REMARKABLE anniversary in the life of Wokingham’s World Health Organisation Covid-19 expert is being recognised this week.

A year ago today (Saturday, January 23) Professor Ben Cowling travelled with colleagues to China, to work on a study which gave the first official estimates of how easily Covid-19 was passed on.

This was urgently needed information when Covid-19 was taking off to eventually become a pandemic.

The scientists were looking at details about the first 425 people to have Covid-19 confirmed in Wuhan last December and January.

Professor Cowling, who went to Sonning Primary School, said: “My colleagues and I … started working with colleagues in China CDC (Center for Disease Control) on analysing the data immediately.

“We finished the paper [study] and submitted it on January 27, and it was published on January 29. That is one of the fastest papers I have ever worked on, and one of the most important in my career.”

Writing a paper and having it published so quickly is extremely rare.

The paper’s prestigious publishers, The New England Journal of Medicine, offers rapid publication within about two weeks if urgent public health concerns are involved. This time they condensed the time much further.

After publication, Professor Cowling spoke exclusively to Wokingham.Today.

At the time, there were just two Covid-19 cases in the UK.

In the interview he predicted the possible start of a coronavirus epidemic in the UK by early March. 

He also warned the new virus was “a real risk to global health.” He was proved right on both.

A year after Professor Cowling’s visit to China, a team of international scientists is now visiting Wuhan to study the virus outbreak there with Chinese experts.

Professor Cowling, who is not on this visit, said the study could help to reduce the risk of a future pandemic.

Professor Cowling director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre in Hong Kong, went to Hong Kong in 2004 after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak, as part of a new team to work on emerging infections and possibly the new SARS whenever it arose.

Sixteen years later he was still there when Covid-19 emerged.

His work continues in Hong Kong.

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