WHO expert: China’s COVID-19 surge could lead to deadly mutation

Dr. Dorit Nitzan: “We have to be ready and alert.”

 Prof. Dorit Nitzan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Dorit Nitzan
(photo credit: Courtesy)

The surge of COVID-19 cases in China raises the odds of new coronavirus mutations that could be more infectious or deadly than the current one, according to Prof. Dorit Nitzan. 

The former regional emergencies director for the World Health Organization’s European region is now back in Israel where she is serving as director of the Master’s Program in Emergency Medicine, Preparedness and Response for Emergencies and Disasters in the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She is also the chair of the school’s new Food Systems, One Health and Resilience program. 

Almost 250 million people in China may have caught COVID-19 in just the first 20 days of December, according to reports by Chinese health officials in the foreign media, and that number has only continued to climb. With China reopened and the resumption of international travel, the virus is likely to spread well outside the region, increasing the probability of a new mutation taking hold.

“There are billions of people in China and the virus is rotating,” Nitzan told The Jerusalem Post. “That will likely produce a variant. We do not know what it will be. But we have to be ready and alert.”

Dorit Nitzan will speak at the Women Leaders Summit on February 22. Learn more >>

In her previous position, Nitzan played a key role in the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, spending a lot of work on WHO’s solidarity platforms: vaccine development, medicines, rapid testing and resource mobilization.

She added that China is a good “case control study” since the country really closed itself off from the world, hoping that if people stayed away from each other and the rest of the world that the virus would not spread there. “But the virus does not listen to that,” Nitzan noted. “We see that countries that vaccinated their people and gave them boosters, and that those people got sick at a certain stage after getting boosters but did not get severely ill – those countries are doing better today.

“What will happen tomorrow? This is hard to predict.”

She said that countries like Israel, where cases still remain relatively low and severe disease manageable, should enjoy the opportunity to stay open and rebuild their economies. At the same time, she recommended monitoring and surveying, including genetic testing to watch for new variants.

Nitzan added that now is the time for governments to invest in their health systems, including public health systems, to ensure that they are prepared for any future disaster – pandemic, earthquake or otherwise. 

“The next emergency is just around the corner,” according to Nitzan. “The decision to be prepared or not is a decision. Not doing the right things right now means we decided not to get prepared.”

On Moshe Bar Siman Tov: ‘I am optimistic’

She noted that she is optimistic about the reappointment of Moshe Bar Siman Tov to the role of Health Ministry director general. 

“I think that he knows what it means to face an emergency and understands the need to be prepared,” Nitzan said. “I believe we can do it right here.”

On the Ukraine war: ‘The people are in dire need’

Nitzan will be among the top speakers presenting at The Jerusalem Post’s upcoming Women Leaders Summit on February 22. She told the Post that in her address she will talk about advances in medicine and public health, but also about the health challenges that have resulted from the Ukraine war – and the lessons learned.

Nitzan retired from WHO at the end of January 2022, but was quickly recruited back into the field to travel to Ukraine and help lead the organization’s health and humanitarian response in the country. 

She had served as the WHO representative to Ukraine from 2012 to 2016. 

Nitzan helped build a team of volunteer emergency workers across the country who worked closely with local health professionals. 

“The strongest and youngest people that could leave the country did so in the early days,” she explained. “Those that stayed behind were in dire need of everything – food, medicine, transportation, waste management.” 

She said infectious diseases from cholera and polio to measles were spreading across the country. Ukraine was also missing basic supplies, generators and armored vehicles to manage care of the sick and elderly during the war. She noted the importance of investing in infrastructure to evacuate people in need of medical attention, from the wounded to those with special needs, cancer patients and others. 

On women leadership: ‘We have broken the glass ceiling’

Nitzan is now bringing her experiences to her new role at BGU, which she started in October 2022. On the one hand, she is teaching emergency medicine and preparedness to master’s and doctorate students. On the other hand, she is leading a research team that will help ensure Israel is ready for these kinds of emergencies. 

Through the Food Systems, One Health and Resilience program she will tackle research into earthquake preparedness on behalf of the Health Ministry, for example.

“I think women have broken the glass ceiling,” she told the Post. “I don’t think the glass ceiling is the issue. I think it is a maze.”

Nitzan described how women “find themselves running in a maze” and that it can be “very hard to focus because we have to pay attention to so many important things in our lives: family, work and others.”

As she has grown in her roles and capacity, she said she hopes that she can be of assistance to other women who are hoping to succeed in the public health sphere. 

“When I see a woman in the maze and considering her next turn – and maybe I have taken that turn – I want to help her get where she needs to go,” Nitzan said. “Women need to help each other.”

Women Leaders Summit | February 22 at Habait Hayarok in Tel Aviv | Buy tickets >>