China-based Corkman in the right place at the right time for Ireland

Dr Paul O’Brien used his connections in China to help source PPE and share expertise

Dr Paul O’Brien used his expertise to procure PPE to send from China to Ireland. Photograph: Angela Ponce / Bloomberg

Dr Paul O’Brien used his expertise to procure PPE to send from China to Ireland. Photograph: Angela Ponce / Bloomberg

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When the Green Jersey awards are being handed out for service during the national pandemic there is sure to be one with the name of Dr Paul O’Brien on it.

A China-based doctor and regulatory expert, Dr O’Brien could be said to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the Covid-19 outbreak started in that country at the beginning of the year.

However, the 35-year-old Corkman proved to be the right man in the right place for Ireland when the disease started heading to Europe and he realised he could play a major role in our efforts to deal with the crisis.

He first came to public attention when he wrote an open letter online to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and HSE boss Paul Reid in early March critiquing aspects of the national response to the pandemic. Based on his conversations with Chinese medics, he believed – correctly – that Europe was at the time sleepwalking itself into a crisis.

“I was very worried because I had been in touch with Chinese docs and they said we seemed not to know what we’re in for.”

But whereas others might have preferred to hurl on the ditch, O’Brien, eschewing an overtly political approach, has been of enormous practical assistance in sourcing help from China to bring to bear on the emerging crisis back at home.

When the disease was still confined to China, he had been involved in trying to source personal protective equipment for local doctors from Europe. Now, he used his expertise to procure PPE to send from China to Ireland.

Cork roots

From Montenotte, he got in touch with fellow Corkmen, GP Nick Flynn and respiratory consultant Oisin O’Connell. A WhatsApp group was set up which has become a lively forum for sourcing equipment and exchanging ideas on how best to address problem areas as the pandemic approached. Many of the supply issues for PPE and ventilators were solved through contacts on this group.

O’Brien organised teleconferences in which Chinese doctors from Wuhan shared their expertise in fighting coronavirus. Another Corkman, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, was brought in to lend “gravitas” and help nail deals for the supply of equipment.

He also translated a 146-page protocol used in a Chinese hospital so it could advise Irish hospitals on how best to treat patients with the virus.

Meanwhile, O’Brien’s own life is on hold. Having studied genetics and food science, he had gone to China to train as a doctor at Zhejiang University. He is now married to a local woman and they have a young child.

He had been due to travel to the US to do his final exams for practising medicine there but this was scuppered by the pandemic. And while he has applied to Ireland On Call, his Chinese qualifications are unlikely to be recognised quickly enough back at home.

He is, however, optimistic that Ireland will succeed in curbing the advance of the virus and that a vaccine will be developed more quickly than many people expect.