COVID-19: Pandemic threat real, admits WHO

Novel coronavirus hasn’t run its course in most countries; need to step up emergency measures

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Tuesday 10 March 2020
Coronavirus may be a declared pandemic

The World Health Organization seemed close to declaring the novel coronavirus outbreak (SARS-CoV-2) a ‘pandemic’.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the United Nations agency’s director-general, noted how fast the virus (aka COVID-19) has spread — 114,044 patients in 112 countries; 4,003 deaths — and called the situation “troubling”.

“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” he told reporters on March 9, 2020 but with a rider: It would be first “controllable” pandemic.  

According to Ghebreyesus:

“Had it been a flu virus outbreak, we would have already declared a pandemic because we know it is not controllable. But we do believe even now that if countries take aggressive measures against this virus, the spread can be controlled.”

The world body has so far declared pandemic four times — all related to the flu virus, the 2009 swine flu being the last. 

Several experts from across the world have advocated for over a month that a pandemic be declared. But the March 10 press conference was the first time the WHO — which held out all along — dropped any such hints.

What’s in a name

Pandemic has no standard definition, said WHO emergency programmes director Mike Ryan. If the principal disease’s spread from country to country couldn’t be controlled, it can be called a pandemic.

The WHO website defines it as the spread of a new virus towards which people have no immunity and which has a global spread.

“It is time we step back and think again as we are very close to a pandemic,” Ryan said. Declaring a pandemic would mean a major change in strategy, he added.

Countries would be advised to channel resources towards curbing the impact of the disease rather than controlling its spread, to move from the ‘containment’ phase to the ‘mitigation’ phase. 

Ghebreyesus cautioned against such a scenario: “It is a false dichotomy. It’s about both.”

Ryan, about a fortnight ago, sought to differentiate between the two and said there was enough data to suggest that countries need not be advised towards mitigation alone, containment being the way forward.

The WHO narrative leaned on to containment even a week ago; since then the agency has moved to stressing that both containment and mitigation were needed.

Countries witnessing community transmission — including the United States, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran — have been advised to consider shutting down schools and cancelling mass gatherings.

Community transmission is a phase when a person might be infected even without a travel history to high-risk places or without being touched by a patient.

All countries have been asked to step up emergency response mechanisms and sharpen surveillance for tracing contacts of confirmed cases.

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