China could have prevented 95 per cent of coronavirus infections if its measures to contain the outbreak had begun three weeks earlier, research from the University of Southampton suggests. However, China only took vigorous action in late January – weeks after police silenced a doctor for trying to raise the alarm.

First detected in Hubei, more than 146,000 people globally have now been infected with Covid-19, whilst over 5,500 have died from the SARS-like disease.

face mask
File Photo: GovHK.

The study published this week by population mapping group WorldPop measured the effectiveness of nonpharmaceutical interventions. The researchers examined how China isolated ill persons, quarantined exposed individuals, conducted contract tracing, restricted travel, closed schools and workplaces, and cancelled mass gatherings.

The analysis – which has yet to be peer-reviewed – found that early case detection and contact reduction were effective in controlling the virus and combined measures can reduce transmission. They can also delay the timing and reduce the size of the epidemic’s peak, and thus buy time for healthcare preparations and drugs research.

The simulations drew on human movement and illness data to model how combined interventions might affect the spread of Covid-19.

wuhan virus spread

Coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 66 per cent if the measures were taken a week earlier, the study suggested, or by 86 per cent if action began two weeks earlier. If action was taken three weeks later, then the situation could have worsened 18-fold.

Dr Li Wenliang

Most efforts to tackle the outbreak took place in late January, weeks after Wuhan ophthalmologist Dr Li Wenliang tried to warn about the mystery disease on December 30. He was among eight people who were punished by police on January 1 for spreading “rumours” about the virus.

Li Wenliang
Li Wenliang. Photo: Li Wenliang.

The Public Security Bureau made Li sign a letter stating that he had made “false comments” and had “severely disturbed the social order.” He died last month of the disease, aged 34, prompting widespread outrage in China.

According to the New York Times, China also ignored offers of help in January from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.


With the virus now classed as a global pandemic, the University of Southampton researchers concluded that social distancing measures should continue for the next few months and China’s approach should be adopted elsewhere as early as possible.

“China’s vigorous, multifaceted response is likely to have prevented a far worse situation, which would have accelerated spread globally,” the study said.

Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.