Coronavirus outbreak still containable, says WHO; health agencies disagree

91,308 cases reported globally; 76 countries affected 

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Tuesday 03 March 2020

With more countries coming under the grip of coronavirus (COVID-19), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other public health agencies are increasingly at odds. The United Nation’s health body has maintained that the novel virus (SARS-CoV-2) could be contained; European Centres for Disease Control (ECDC) said otherwise.

At a press conference on March 2, 2020, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was possible to contain the spread of the virus in all affected countries.

He said that 38 countries reported not more than 10 cases, and that 19 have reported only one case each so far.

The virus affected 76 countries until March 3, 2020. Tunisia, Senegal, Jordon and the Dominican Republic reported their first cases from March 1-3, 2020. 

Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies diseases programme, claimed that many countries had been able to contain the virus.

On the other hand, in a statement issued hours before the conference, the ECDC had said:

There are an increasing number of countries with widespread community transmission around the world. These are exporting cases with subsequent transmission to previously unaffected areas. The control measures have, up to now, been able to only slow, but not stop further spread.

“In the event of established and widespread community transmission, current containment measures may no longer be an efficient use of resources. If this occurs, action should be taken to prepare for a mitigation strategy that includes coordinated efforts to protect the health of EU/EEA and UK citizens by decreasing the burden on healthcare systems and protecting populations at risk of severe disease,” the statement added.

Community transmission happens when a person — who has neither travelled to the country of origin (China in this case), nor has been in contact with the infected person — gets affected with the virus.

Responding to a question by Down To Earth at the presser, Ryan said:

There comes a point during an epidemic when you have to shift resources towards saving lives. That can be done by moving towards the mitigation phase from the containment phase. You have to accept that you can no longer effect course of the disease or break the virus’ transmission cycle. The WHO does not believe that.

He added: “Only history will tell who is right and who is wrong. I hate to think that countries with no cases are moving towards mitigation. It would be difficult for the ECDC to explain this to its citizens.”

Meanwhile, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has asked its citizens prepare for the worst. The world has already met two of the three criteria of a pandemic and was on the verge of meeting the third one, it warned.

Notwithstanding WHO’s claims, several global experts, including Tom Frieden, former head of US CDC; Anthony Fauci, head of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; and Mark Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, among others said that pandemic is a possibility.

Amesh Adalja, epidemiologist and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, told Down to Earth via email: “The virus spreads via respiratory route and transmits between humans. Hence, it was never containable. It has been spreading since November.”

The WHO has said that transmission can be interrupted citing examples of China and Singapore. “It’s unclear whether containment has been achieved because testing was skewed towards hospitalised patients. So we know nothing about the number of mild cases,” Adalja said.

The total number of positive cases till March 3, 2020 was 91,308 with over 3,120 deaths. One person in Jaipur tested positive on March 3. He is, however, an Italian national. Twenty-four persons, including 21 Italian tourists and three Indians (bus driver, conductor and tourist guide), who had contact with the Italian national have been shifted to the ITBP quarantine facility at Delhi for further investigation. The total number of confirmed cases in India stands at five.

Meanwhile, Ghebreyesus has asked its member states to ensure hospitals had enough ICU beds and ventilation equipment.

“All countries need to assess their preparedness in case of a spike in the number of cases. It is known by now that 30 per cent of those hospitalised require critical care. Countries need to look at their demographics,” WHO’s technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove, said.

Ryan, however, said that skilled manpower would be needed along with infrastructure.

“Even if you have the infrastructure to deal with the cases, you would still require skilled hands to manage the equipment. Therefore most countries are bound to suffer if more intensive care is required,” he said.

Meanwhile, the UN health body said it was in touch with North Korea and has supplied protective gear for health workers there. However, it could not reveal the number of positive cases there.

On the 62nd day of COVID-19 outbreak, WHO's piece of advice was: Do not panic. Wash hands frequently. Practice respiratory hygiene.

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