Robert Sebbag is a doctor working with the infectious and tropical diseases department of the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, and has devoted his career to fighting pandemics such as SARS, Ebola, and now the coronavirus. He has also worked with the French-American humanitarian aid organization Action Against Hunger, the International Red Cross, and French pharmaceutical laboratory Sanofi. He believes that neither France nor the United States were prepared for a healthcare crisis on this scale.
France-Amérique: Countries in Asia reacted to the pandemic faster than we did. Were they more successful?
Robert Sebbag: China faced facts after a month spent in denial. The current pandemic is very similar to the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a life-threatening, contagious, viral pneumonia. Neighboring countries previously affected by SARS — South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan — immediately recognized the coronavirus, knew how to react, and had a strategy ready. They brought the pandemic under control in three months, whereas the West is lagging far behind.
What did they do that we should have done?
Instead of confining everyone — as it was the case in France and still is in the United States —, which leads to unbearable psychological stress and economic disaster, the Asian countries immediately isolated the centers of infection using systematic testing. People with the virus were questioned to identify everyone with whom they had been in contact. Thanks to this approach, only infected or contagious people were confined. Meanwhile, the rest of the country continued to function normally and the hospitals were not overwhelmed.
Why did France and the United States fail to adopt the same strategy?
French and American leaders believed that the virus would remain in Asia, which is absurd as in January there were already cases in Seattle — which has close ties to China — and in France. This fatal blindness, especially in the United States, has been worsened by a total lack of preparation. Hospitals had no emergency plan and there were not enough ventilators. In France, the stocks of medical face masks had not been renewed for the last ten years!
Are the confinement measures adopted almost all over Europe and in the United States the only solution?
Yes, it is too late to only confine parts of the population. Given the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the high mortality rate, a lack of confinement and the hope of naturally creating herd immunity would inevitably cause hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Face masks have been reserved for medical staff on the grounds they are useless for members of the public. What is your view?
This pseudoscientific argument is shocking. If everyone wore a mask the risk of contagion would be reduced, but in light of the lack of masks we are inventing inaccurate medical reasons.
Should we be testing everyone?
We should have, but once again it is too late. We are giving false reasons for only testing sick people because France and the United States do not have enough tests. In any case, when the pandemic disappears in two or three months, we will have to use blood tests to identify who is immune and who is not to prevent a relapse in the fall. If the level of immunity is too low, we will have to go back into confinement.
How have two of the world’s most advanced countries, France and the United States, found themselves in such a disastrous situation?
The arrogance of our leaders and a failure to listen to experts, many of whom are discreet researchers, are why we are in this situation.
Interview published in the May 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.