Coronavirus: The world must prepare for a potential pandemic, warns WHO
Experts advised that it is time for countries, communities, and individuals to focus on preparing for a potential pandemic
The deadly new coronavirus has the potential to become a pandemic, said the World Health Organization (WHO), but while refusing to make that declaration just yet, WHO experts asked countries to be ready for it.
“Our decision about whether to use the word pandemic to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographic spread of the virus, the severity of the disease it causes, and the impact it has on the whole society. For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing larger scale severe disease or death,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a media briefing.
He added, “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
Dr. Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, also emphasized that it is too early to declare COVID-19 a pandemic and that the WHO is still trying to avoid that reality.”
“We’re still trying to avoid that eventuality and countries are having success in doing that,” said Dr Ryan.
The WHO had earlier declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, the agency’s highest level of alarm.
According to a WHO-China joint mission, the epidemic peaked and plateaued in China between January 23, and February 2nd of February, and has been declining steadily since then.
On Tuesday, China reported 508 new cases and another 71 deaths, 68 of them in the central city of Wuhan. This brings mainland China's total to 77,658 cases and 2,663 deaths.
However, COVID-19 has continued its spread beyond China with cases surging rapidly in Italy, Iran and South Korea.
South Korea now has the second-most cases in the world with 893 and has had a nearly 15-fold increase in reported infections in a week. Of the 60 new cases reported by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 49 came from Daegu and the surrounding areas of North Gyeongsang province. An estimated nine have died in South Korea from COVID-19.
Clusters have also emerged in Iran and Italy, and there are concerns the new outbreaks could signal a serious new stage in the global spread of the illness. In Italy, 229 people have tested positive for the virus and seven have died. In Iran, 12 people have died from the virus, and 61 have been sickened by it.
“The sudden increase of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning. There is a lot of speculation about whether this increase means that this epidemic has now become a pandemic. We understand why people ask that question,” said Ghebreyesus.
“How should we describe the current situation? What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world, affecting countries in different ways and requiring a tailored response. The sudden increase in new cases is certainly very concerning. I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear. Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear. This is not the time to focus on what word we use. That will not prevent a single infection today or save a single life today,” said Ghebreyesus.
Referring to infections in other countries, Dr Ryan said that every country will have a different dynamic. He cautioned that one should not extrapolate from one individual country experience.
“We need to be very careful in the first wave of infections in any newly affected country because we may only be detecting severe cases and the deaths will be overrepresented in that. We also need to be cognizant that the virus may have been there for longer than we had previously suspected. We do know again, each and every country is a different dynamic,” he said.
The health experts also said while it is easier to say whether a certain season of flu has turned into a pandemic, the same is not true in the case of COVID-19 as it is a very new disease and scientists are still learning about it.
“Pandemics of influenza can be sometimes called a lot earlier because we know we’ve had previous pandemics. We know with influenza that when there’s highly efficient community transmission, as we see with seasonal flu, the disease does spread around the world. And it has proven that time and time again. So it’s much easier to say a pandemic will occur in an influenza situation. What we don’t understand yet in COVID-19 are the absolute transmission dynamics,” he said.
Preparing for a pandemic
WHO experts said that it is time for countries, communities, and individuals to focus on preparing for a potential pandemic.
Dr. Ryan said that enough countries have now imported the disease, and it is time to prepare. “So let’s focus on what we can do and what we need to do, which is to prepare. We mean prepare to detect cases, prepare to treat cases, prepare to follow context, prepare to put it in place adequate containment measures,” said Dr Ryan.
He added, “We are in a phase of preparedness for a potential pandemic. That doesn’t stop anyone doing what they need to do.”
Stating there is no one size fits all approach, experts said that every country must make its own risk assessment for its own context.
“We do not live in a binary black and white world. It’s not either-or. We must focus on containment while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic,” said Ghebreyesus.
Meanwhile, as the WHO continues to conduct its own risk assessment and monitoring the epidemic around, it outlined priorities for all countries. The experts recommended that countries must prioritize protecting health workers. “We must engage communities to protect people who are most at risk of severe disease, particularly the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. We must protect countries that are the most vulnerable by doing our utmost to contain epidemics in countries with the capacity to do it,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.