The Canadian expert leading the World Health Organization (WHO) team in China responding to the new coronavirus departed Beijing without entering quarantine before landing in Geneva on Tuesday and going straight to a press conference, where he appeared without a mask.
Dr. Bruce Aylward is an infectious disease expert who led the organization’s team in China. The team traveled to different parts of the country, including Wuhan, the epicenter of the new virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
Aylward stopped in Beijing for a joint press conference with Chinese officials on Monday before departing and touching down in Switzerland, where the WHO is based.
Asked why he wasn’t wearing a mask, Aylward told reporters: “I don’t have COVID-19. I’m very low risk.”
Aylward said that his team had no contact with patients in China or even contact with people who were in contact with suspected or confirmed patients.
“I never had any exposures,” he said. “We are careful and we run careful.”
While in China, team members ate most of their meals in their hotel rooms. While on the job they ate at separate tables, Aylward said, recounting a lunch in the cafeteria at China’s Centers for Disease Control.
“You had to shout at each other,” he said.
The distance kept between people was two meters, or 6.5 feet. Experts say close contact means coming within six feet of those infected with the new virus.
The WHO team was in Wuhan, Aylward said, but even the hospitals they went to there weren’t a concern because they were in “the clean section.”
“Any of the hospitals we went to, we go into the clean section. We go nowhere near, you know there’s a dirty section and then there’s also a gray zone. We went nowhere near those things,” he said. Aylward may have been referring to an area known in Chinese as the infected zone.
There have been at least thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of cases in Hubei Province, which includes Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. Data from Chinese Communist Party officials is widely believed to be lower than the true numbers of cases and deaths, both at the provincial and national level.
China requires anyone traveling from other provinces to Beijing to undergo a two-week quarantine. The policy applies to WHO officials as well, Aylward said, unless they’re in transit to somewhere else.
Chinese officials took a swab from the doctor when he arrived in Guangdong Province on Monday and the test came back negative. There were negotiations over how the situation was managed.
Aylward, who wore a mask at his Monday press conference in China, told reporters in Geneva that if there was a risk he had the disease, he wouldn’t be at the press conference. He wouldn’t just appear and put on a mask, he said.