Harvard Prof. Co-Authors Study Investigating COVID-19 Outbreak and Control Methods in Wuhan, China


A new study co-authored by Harvard School of Public Health biostatistics professor Xihong Lin elucidates how coronavirus spread in Wuhan, China and analyzes the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions — such as isolation and social distancing — in containing the outbreak.

A preliminary version of the study was published on March 6 on MedRxiv, a non-peer-reviewed platform. In the article, the research team — which combined the efforts of scientists at Harvard and universities in Wuhan and Shanghai, China — wrote that an analysis of more than 25,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the city showed aggressive disease containment efforts have “considerably changed the course” of the outbreak, despite the lack of an effective treatment or vaccine.

Many of Lin’s colleagues across Harvard’s Longwood campus, its affiliated hospitals, and its research institutes are also working on containment and treatment strategies to combat the novel coronavirus.

Lin gave an overview of the research in a virtual seminar for Harvard affiliates on March 13, recommending a large-scale approach for controlling the virus.


The researchers identified multiple epidemiological features of the virus, including common means of transmission. They observed that it was common for the virus to spread from one infected family member to the next.

They also described roughly 60 percent of cases as “un-ascertained” — that is, undetected because they are mild or asymptomatic — which could leave infected individuals free to unwittingly infect others if precautionary measures are not taken.

In her slides, Lin noted that increased testing capacity is critical to address the large number of undiagnosed cases. In the face of the current low testing capacity in the United States, Lin recommended an “intermediate multi-pronged strategy,” including centralized quarantine for confirmed and suspected cases, symptomatic cases, and even asymptomatic close contacts. Her recommended approach also involved large-scale screening using symptoms — regardless of testing kit availability — to recommend courses of action for potential cases.

The study also confirmed that the risk of a severe COVID-19 case increases with age, and observed that women had a significantly lower risk of developing severe complications than men.

Lin noted in her presentation that the Chinese government reported on March 12 that none of the 42,000 healthcare personnel sent to Wuhan were infected with the virus. Lin credited this to full-body protective gear and stringent hospital protocols, which are not universally used throughout the United States. She further recommended that American hospitals adopt similar measures.

Lin remained hopeful about stopping the outbreak throughout her presentation.

“Wuhan experience helps us not start from zero,” Lin wrote on her concluding slide. “Good policy, strategy and leadership, cooperation are the key!”

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at