U.S. Department of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
APRIL 15, 2020

Dr. Barbara Marston, CDC COVID-19 International Task Force Lead; and
Dr. John MacArthur, CDC Thailand Country Director


Moderator: Thank you very much. Good morning, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I would like to welcome our participants dialing in for this briefing.

Today we are pleased to be joined from Atlanta, in the United States, by Dr. Barbara Marston, the COVID-19 International Task Force Lead at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC; and from Bangkok, Thailand, Dr. John MacArthur, the CDC Thailand Country Director.

The scope of today’s call is the U.S. CDC response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia and coordination efforts with national governments in the region.

Dr. Marston: Thank you, Zia. Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening to everyone. Thank you for joining us today. The COVID pandemic is a difficult situation and it’s going to require resilience around the world. As of 3pm Bangkok time on April 14th, the World Health Organization had reported over 1.8 million cases globally from COVID-19 and over 117,000 deaths. That included 122,000 cases and 4,000 deaths in the Western Pacific region, and over 18,000 cases and over 800 deaths in Southeast Asia.

We know that behind every one of those deaths is a real person who has left behind grieving family and friends. As a public health agency, efforts to prevent illness and loss of life are the top priority for CDC, both in the U.S. and around the world. To help achieve this, CDC has been working globally for 70 years. We have more than 50 offices around the world where we’re working hand in hand with host-country governments on specific health problems such as HIV and malaria, and on broad issues such as laboratory capacity and workforce development.

CDC is proud of its longstanding relationship with the people of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. We have a long history of supporting public health work in the area. In fact, in 1950, we sent a team to Southeast Asia to assist in developing programs in malaria control and public health.

I’d now like to turn the call over to Dr. John MacArthur, the CDC Thailand Country Director. Dr. MacArthur can provide some additional detail about the work in the region.

Dr. MacArthur: Thank you, Dr. Marston, and good morning to all of you, and I really appreciate you joining us today.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, region has a long history of battling emerging infectious diseases going back more than 20 years. The region has experienced Nipah, SARS, avian influenza or bird flu, pandemic influenza, Zika, and of course now COVID-19. Because of their earlier experiences, ASEAN Member States were quick to agree to the international health regulations and work towards achieving the core capacity requirements under this new framework. Mechanisms such as the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and the Global Health Security Agenda have served as useful vehicles to assist the region in preventing, detecting, and responding to emerging infectious diseases.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has a longstanding commitment to the Asia Pacific region, with many bilateral relationships dating back decades. We currently have offices in six of the 10 ASEAN member states, China, and Papua New Guinea, down in the Pacific Island nations, focusing on key capacities for vital health security: workforce development, public health emergency management, national lab systems, and surveillance. Surveillance, of course, is monitoring and tracking the pattern of disease occurrence in those countries.

In Thailand, where I am currently posted, CDC has its largest overseas operations, which began 40 years ago with the establishment of the first Field Epidemiology Training Program, or FETP, outside of North America. Over the years, we have worked with many host governments to build FETPs as well as to support the ASEAN+3 Field Epidemiology Training Network. Currently, graduates of these disease detective programs are providing the leadership and the on-the-ground epidemiology expertise needed to combat COVID-19 in Asia.

Apart from training disease detectives, CDC offices throughout Asia have been working to strengthen surveillance and laboratory systems as well as public health emergency management programs, all necessary for a successful fight against this virus. Like much of the world, the Asia Pacific region has put in place a variety of measures in an attempt to flatten the curve of the pandemic. While the ASEAN Member States make up 9 percent of the world’s population, they have only experienced 1 percent of the cases, and less than 1 percent of the deaths. The CDC remains committed to working closely with our partner governments throughout the region to support them as they work diligently to reduce the risks of this virus on their people.

Dr. Marston and I are now happy to take any questions that you may have.

Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we will go to Thar Oo from Voice of America. Thar, can you please go ahead?

Question: Yes. My name is Thar Oo from the Voice of America Burmese service. I just came from the Myanmar. I have a specific question about the Myanmar, because you know that Myanmar has found so far 63 positive cases — few comparing with the other neighboring countries, but tens of thousands of Myanmar migrants just came from Thailand recently. So, my question is: Do you have any concern about the Myanmar situation and do you, U.S. CDC, have any cooperation with the Myanmar officials right now?

Dr. Marston: We do actually have an office in Myanmar, and I think Dr. MacArthur works closely with that office from Thailand so I’m going to let him answer.

Dr. MacArthur: Sure, and thanks, Thar Oo, for that question. I will say this: CDC has been working with the Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports really since the time of the bird flu outbreaks in the mid-2000s. In fact, that was myself during my previous time out in the Asia region. And we began at that point in time to build surveillance systems and laboratory networks within the country, really at that point in time, looking at influenza because that was the fear of the potential for pandemic influenza. But it’s those structures, the laboratory structures, and the epidemiology structures and surveillance structures that are in place now that are working to detect and respond to the virus in the country.

One of the things we’re very, very proud of is the launching of the Myanmar Field Epidemiology Training Program. I think you guys are going to hear me talk about this over and over during our time together because it’s vitally important that we really have those disease detectives in place at a variety of levels to really do the ground work of public health in order to control this virus.

I had the pleasure – time is slipping away from me, but I think it was last month – to lead a team into Myanmar with epidemiologists and points-of-entry migration experts, to work with the Ministry of Health and Sports. We also visited the airport in Yangon and Naypyidaw and Mandalay and worked with the quarantine experts in those airports in order to improve the way that they are screening returning Myanmar citizens or tourists in those areas.

And then as Dr. Marston pointed out, we actually have a CDC office in Yangon who works closely with the Ministry of Health and Sports to coordinate the technical assistance that’s been coming from the CDC Atlanta office as well as my office in Thailand.

Moderator: Thank you very much. Dr. Marston, Dr. MacArthur, would you like any final remarks before we close the call?

Dr. Marston: Thanks, Zia. I think we just want to say thank you to the press. We really appreciate the importance of the work that you all do, helping your audiences to understand what needs to be done with this epidemic, and for sharing that information with your viewers and listeners.

Dr. MacArthur: Yes, from my side I just want to echo Dr. Marston’s words of appreciation. I think the partnership between the public health community and the press is really vital, especially in times like this, in ensuring that the communities and the population really get accurate information about the pandemic, and you guys play an extremely important part of disseminating that accurate information. And I just want you, your readers, your listeners to know that they can always turn to us for accurate information, and that can be found at www.cdc.gov.

Moderator: Thank you very much. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Dr. Barbara Marston, the CDC COVID-19 International Task Force Lead, and Dr. John MacArthur, CDC Thailand Country Director. And I also thank all of our journalists on the line for participating, and I apologize for those of you if we weren’t able to get to your question. And also, I understand that some journalists had a hard time joining the call. I apologize for any of those technical difficulties.