Citing a 15-fold increase in COVID-19 cases worldwide and three-fold increase in the number of countries reporting cases in the last two weeks, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said today that the international spread of the coronavirus disease is a pandemic.
It is a word that WHO officials have avoided using, and one they emphasized today should not change responses but should highlight the need to intensify efforts to find, treat and isolate all infected people and trace all of their contacts. The recognition today that the spread of the disease is a pandemic did not require a formal process, as the declaration in January that the coronavirus posed a Pubic Health Emergency of International Concern, and is not based on numbers or computations, WHO officials said. It does however, indicate an acknowledgement that the risks of exposure to the virus have become unpredictable, worldwide. COVID-19 is the first coronavirus to be recognized as a pandemic, and that recognition the first of a virus that can still be contained, Dr. Tedros said. The 81 countries where the virus has yet to be reported, he said, “should not give any ground,” for the virus to spread.
As of today more than 118,000 people across 114 countries have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and the virus has taken 4,291 lives. Affected countries include ones in Africa, a focus of WHO concerns from the recognition of the coronavirus and include the Democratic Republic of Congo, where resources used to fight the now waning year-and-a-half long Ebola epidemic will be diverted. They include Iran, from where a WHO mission recently returned, where, Dr. Tedros said a shortage of essential medical supplies needed to fight the outbreak there continues.
Dr. Tedros acknowledged that while some countries lack resources needed to detect, diagnose, treat, isolate and trace the contacts of all infected people, some lack the resolve. While labor intensive and disruptive to individual lives, WHO Emergency Program Director Dr. Michael Ryan noted, those measures have been undertaken to contain the spread of Ebola during the DRC epidemic, in the midst of armed violence. They are far more cost effective and far less disruptive to societies and economies, Dr. Ryan added, than the mass closings of schools, workplaces, transportation and travel imposed by officials acknowledging that they can no longer detect chains of transmission. When not contained, the coronavirus can easily overwhelm health systems, he noted.
“This is not just a public health crisis,” Dr. Tedros said. “It is a crisis that will touch every sector.” Work to stop the spread of the virus, he said, must involve all sectors of government and be directly responsive to the challenges they face.
“We cannot say this loudly, clearly or often enough,” Dr. Tedros said, “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.” Noting that a 57 countries have reported 10 or fewer cases, and shown that the spread of the virus can be controlled, Dr. Tedros called on all countries to ask “not whether they can do the same, but whether they will.”