Coronavirus: WHO says pandemic threat is 'very real' but scientists say it's already developed into one
WHO officials said they are not trying to avoid using the word pandemic. The only concern is how the world reacts: whether countries will use it as a call to action, or will they use it to give up
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the threat of a COVID-19 pandemic has become very real but added that it could be the first pandemic that could be controlled.
“Over the weekend, we crossed 100,000 reported cases of COVID-19 in 100 countries. It’s certainly troubling that so many people and countries have been affected so quickly. Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a media briefing on March 9.
“Even if we call it a pandemic, and we are really close now, but we can still contain it and control it. It could be a matter of time. But if we give it our best, it could be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled,” he added.
Dr Ghebreyesus explained while the world has agreed to live with a pandemic like flu for several years now despite having a vaccine for it, it should not be the case for COVID-19. “Pandemic doesn't mean that we say it's fine to live it with. Pandemic or not, the rule of the game is the same: never give up. We should not accept or choose to live with COVID-19. We can win this battle,” he said.
Dr Ghebreyesus emphasized that the bottom line is that “we are not at the mercy of this virus.”
“The great advantage we have is that the decisions we all make – as governments, businesses, communities, families, and individuals – can influence the trajectory of this epidemic. We need to remember that with decisive, early action, we can slow down the virus and prevent infections. Among those who are infected, most will recover,” he said.
Dr Ghebreyesus cited the example of China, where he said that of the 80,000 reported cases in China, more than 70% have recovered and been discharged.
The WHO chief called COVID-19 an uneven epidemic at the global level and emphasized that different countries are in different scenarios and so need a tailored response. “It’s also important to remember that looking only at the total number of reported cases and the total number of countries doesn’t tell the full story. Of all the cases reported globally so far, 93% are from just four countries,” he added.
Dr Ghebreyesus said currently, only a handful of countries have signs of sustained community transmission. Most countries still have sporadic cases or defined clusters, he added. “As long as that’s the case, those countries have the opportunity to break the chains of transmission, prevent community transmission and reduce the burden on their health systems,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.
The COVID-19 outbreak has so far killed 4,026 and sickened at least 114,443 globally.
WHO experts worried about world's reaction
When asked to explain what is the definition of a pandemic, according to the WHO, experts said that the principle underlying a pandemic is that the disease has reached a point where its further spread from country to country cannot be controlled.
“There is no accepted definition of pandemics of coronavirus. The principle underlying a pandemic is a principle that in some sense, the disease has reached a point where its further spread from country to country cannot be controlled. If this was influenza we would have called it a pandemic ages ago because we know something inherently about the transmission dynamics of influenza,” said Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme, during the media briefing.
Dr Ryan said that the word pandemic is not a problem and that he is not worried about it. “It's not an avoidance of the word. But the word is important because in many situations the word involves countries moving purely to a mitigation approach. And what we have seen is that moving to a purely mitigation approach is essentially saying that the disease will spread in an uncontrolled fashion,” said Dr Ryan.
He said that countries like Singapore and China have demonstrated “real success” in turning the disease around.
“So this (is) controllability versus being controlled or uncontrolled. From our perspective, we are reaching that point. And when you reach 100 countries and when you reach 100,000 cases, it is time to step back and think. Two weeks ago it was 30 or 40 countries. Now it's 100. So that's not a quantitative measure. But it is a qualitative measure of what direction we are going in,” he told the media.
Dr Ryan said that the world is “very close” because at that point many more countries may become involved and at that point, the virus will be everywhere. He said the contradiction, however, is that unlike the flu, countries can still push COVID-19 back.
Dr Ryan emphasized that the only concern is how the world will react to it: whether countries will use the word pandemic as a call to action, or will they use it to give up.
“We can still significantly slow down this virus. So the word for us is not a problem. The issue is what the reaction to the word will be. Will the reaction to the word be ‘let's fight, let's push this disease back’ or will the reaction to the word be ‘let's give up’,” he said.
Scientists say COVID-19 is already a pandemic
Scientists from multiple institutes have said that COVID-19, which has killed 4,016 and infected 113,739 in over 100 nations, can now be called a pandemic.
“In our view, COVID-19 has developed into a pandemic, with small chains of transmission in many countries and large chains resulting in an extensive spread in a few countries, such as Italy, Iran, South Korea, and Japan,” said researchers in a commentary, which has been published in The Lancet.
This includes experts from Imperial College London, London; Utrecht University, Netherlands; National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, Netherlands; and the University of Oxford, UK.
The researchers said that most countries are likely to have spread of COVID-19, at least in the early stages, before any mitigation measures have an impact.
“Governments will not be able to minimize both deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the economic impact of viral spread. Keeping mortality as low as possible will be the highest priority for individuals. Hence governments must put in place measures to ameliorate the inevitable economic downturn,” they added.