COVID-19: WHO raises risk level for world to ‘very high’

Global stock markets plunged on February 28 amid fears of a pandemic as the disease spread to 53 countries

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 28 February 2020
South Korean health workers sanitise the premises of a building in Seoul. Photo: @CoronaVirusInt__

The World Health Organization (WHO) raised the risk assessment level of the world for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to ‘Very High’ from ‘High’ on February 28, 2020. Till now, only China's risk levels were indicated as ‘Very High’.

Brazil, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Norway, Pakistan, Romania, North Macedonia, Lithuania, New Zealand, Nigeria and Azerbaijan registered their first positive case of COVID-19 in the last 48 hours. With this, the total number of affected countries stand at 53.

The total number of cases has now gone up to 83,896 and deaths have climbed up to 2,867.

“For the past two days, the number of new cases reported in the rest of the world has exceeded the number of new cases in China,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference on February 27. 

Ghebreyesus said the virus (SARS-CoV-2) had a pandemic potential and the outbreak could go either way. “The narrowing window of opportunity is narrowing further. This is a decisive point,” he told media persons.

A world map showing the countries affected by COVID-19 till February 28, 2020. Credit: Vijayendra Pratap Singh / CSE

Stock markets across the globe hit the panic button on fears of an impending pandemic. International news agency Reuters reported the week through February 28 to be the worst for global markets — with a valuation loss of $5 trillion — since the 2008 meltdown.

The BSE Sensex fell 3.64 points to close at 38,297.29 points while the more broad-based Nifty 50 shed 3.71 per cent to close at 11,201.75 points. The week marked the worst week for the Indian market since 2009.

The Nikkei 225 index of the Tokyo Stock Exchange fell 3.67 per cent; the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index lost 3.71 per cent. The FTSE 100 in London traded down over 3 per cent in afternoon trading. 

While the WHO has refrained from declare a pandemic, experts said the announcement hardly mattered now.

“It doesn't matter if the WHO calls this a pandemic or not — this is already a global concern. In my opinion, the window of containment was likely closed a while ago, though we still may have a window where we can delay (but not completely prevent) spread,” Nathan Grubaugh, a virologist with the Yale School of Public Health told Down To Earth.

“It is in too many locations now to prevent importations,” he added. 

In fact, the report submitted by the WHO-China joint mission on coronavirus said the world was hardly prepared.

“Much of the global community is not yet ready, in mind set and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China. These are the only measures that are currently proven to interrupt or minimise transmission chains in humans,” the report read.

What is more distressing is the fact that a few countries are now also reporting community transmission. This usually happens when a person who does not have any relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient with COVID-19, gets infected.  

“The detection of at least one community-acquired case with no link to travel suggests that some level of undetected transmission has been happening in California. We do not yet have a grasp of the extent of this. A more alarming trend are the large outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, and Iran, which are certainly community-acquired,” Grubaugh said. 

The world has very few options to contain the virus in absence of therapeutics and a preventive vaccine.  Proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts can help the countries in best possible manner, the joint mission report said. 

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have started declining in China. The last few days of February saw nearly 400 new cases per day against more than 2,000 new cases per day at the beginning of the month.  This was a decline of 80 per cent.

However, it is too early for China to become complacent, experts said.

“It is way too early to say that the worst is over for all of China, but perhaps the outbreak is plateauing in Wuhan. There may be other outbreaks in the country that are just starting to take off. The incubation period is about 2-12 days, so there will be a delay before new outbreaks get detected,” Grubaugh said.

Even those countries that registered one-odd cases who recovered are still at risk. “There are several countries that have not reported a case for more than two weeks: Belgium, Cambodia, India, Nepal, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and Vietnam,” Ghebreyesus said.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean those countries won’t have more cases. In fact, as of February 25, both Finland and Sweden had reported no cases for more than two weeks, but unfortunately both had new cases on February 26,” he added. 

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