COVID-19: 'Need to address the unknown'

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier's on why the UN health body doesn't consider novel coronavirus to be a pandemic

By Christian Lindmeier
Published: Wednesday 26 February 2020

CHRISTIAN LINDMEIER is spokesperson of the World Health Organization

Though many experts say the coronavirus outbreak is close to a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not believe so. At present, we are in the phase where it’s an epidemic with multiple foci, and we will try to extinguish the transmission in each of these foci.

Previous coronaviruses including Severe Acute Respitatory Syndrom (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrom (MERS) didn’t lead to a pandemic when they first emerged. However, we still do not know much about this virus.

That's why WHO is monitoring the evolution of this outbreak every minute with a network of scientists, clinicians, disease trackers, governments, supply chain experts and partners from the public and private sector. 

In fact, WHO declared the new coronavirus COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30, 2020. This the sixth time a PHEIC has been declared — the previous ones were H1N1 in 2009, Polio in 2014, Ebola in West Africa in 2014, Zika in 2016, Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019.

Following the declaration of a PHEIC, WHO has issued temporary recommendations. These measures address travel, trade, quarantine, screening and treatment to make sure countries are prepared to deal with this outbreak. They can also set global standards of practice in these areas.

WHO is also working towards reducing secondary infections amongst close contacts and healthcare workers; preventing transmission amplification events and super spreading events (which happened in the case of SARS); and, preventing further spread. 

To reduce zoonotic transmission, we need to identify animal source(s) and limit exposure; equip countries to detect, isolate and provide healthcare for infected patients; and, provide optimised care.

We also need to address the unknown through clinical severity, treatment options, epidemiologic studies, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. As WHO's director-general said: “The risk of it becoming more widespread globally remains high.” 

This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-29 February, 2020)

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