Taiwan represents to the gold standard for containing the novel coronavirus...
I’d prefer to be discussing the return to space of astronauts lofted by an American-built rocket, scheduled for late May. Instead, I’m compelled to address the pandemic and the lessons we might draw from Taiwan, which has engineered arguably the world’s most effective Covid-19 containment strategy.
The U.S. needs a mitigation strategy because it didn’t have a containment plan. Taiwan, hardened by previous Asian epidemics and natural disasters, moved aggressively in early 2020 to contain the novel coronavirus, quickly identifying the strain spreading rapidly from Wuhan, China.
“We were very proactive, very sensitive to the sources of the infection,” Liang-Gee Chen, Taiwan’s minister of science and technology, said during a recent lessons-learned forum. “We tried to leverage all the science and technology built up in response to the  SARS outbreak,” added Chen, a former chip designer.
So far, it has worked. According to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 tracker, Taiwan’s aggressive approach has limited confirmed infections to just 429, with only six deaths on an island of about 24 million inhabitants. On April 28, Taiwan announced zero new cases.
As of late April, Johns Hopkins reports more than 3 million confirmed infections worldwide, with an estimated death toll approaching 220,000. The U.S. is by far the leader in total confirmed cases, approaching 1 million by late April.
Hence, the U.S. can learn much from Taiwan’s coronavirus containment plan, a mix of technology, footwork, data analytics and overall preparedness. Among the reasons Taiwan was prepared was deep distrust about Beijing’s opaque statements concerning the virus’ spread and severity. Another was its ability to mesh several key national databases used to identify and quarantine potential infections.
Early on, flights from China were met by public health officials. Suspected infections were quarantined and tracked via contact tracing tools that have yet to be rolled out in the U.S. and Europe.
Taiwan uses cell tower signals to track infected persons. A GPS upgrade is possible. That framework gives public health officials the ability to triangulate location and track the movements of infected persons. Loss of signal generates an alert and a knock on the door. If no answer, the police are notified. Little is left to chance.
The U.S. version being developed by Apple and Google is Bluetooth based and relies on infected individuals opting into the contact tracing system. Most of Europe is proposing a similar tracking system, with the notable exception of hard-hit France, which is proposing centralized system some privacy experts insist is unworkable.
“Google and Apple developed a decentralized alternative that they refer to as ‘exposure notification,’ presumably to avoid some of the taint associated with the more intrusive contact tracing used in Asia,” said Sarah Kreps, a Cornell University professor of government who studies surveillance systems and cybersecurity. “The approach uses short-range Bluetooth communication, is opt-in and stores data on a user’s device.”
Kreps says the centralized system proposed by France “is doomed to fail. “Centralized systems of storage on data as highly sensitive as health status are unlikely to elicit trust. Yet a contact tracing system can only succeed with a critical mass of citizens opting in.”
That view is share by C. Jason Wang, director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention. “Taiwan did incredibly well in containing Covid-19,” said Wang, who is also an associate professor of medicine at Stanford University. “The U.S. needs a mitigation strategy because it didn’t have a containment strategy” akin to Taiwan’s.
In a widely circulated article on Taiwan’s response to the outbreak in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Wang and his co-authors stressed the practical application of big data analytics, emerging technologies and “proactive testing.” What’s needed now is flexible, opt-in system for contact tracing and qualified personnel to keep track of those infected.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has since shifted from containment to production mode, churning out personal protection equipment and other gear for the rest of the world. Taiwan’s tech boosters assert it is poised to enter an “innovation phase” that will help develop new methods to combat the coronavirus. With the support of its science and technology ministry, Taiwan’s vibrant startup sector is sponsoring global technology challenge to come up with solutions.
Once again, Taiwan is a step ahead when it comes to finding tools, then commercializing and scaling the most promising solutions. Taken together, its containment-production-innovation strategy represents the gold standard for fighting the novel coronavirus.
Let’s hope the U.S. gets its coronavirus mitigation strategy up and running in the weeks ahead. Then we can turn to other subjects, like the scheduled launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lofting two astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station—the first such launch from the Kennedy Space Center since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
If we can send humans to the moon, we can lick the novel coronavirus.