First of all, good morning and welcome to our weekly mission briefing on COVID-19. I’m glad that we’re maintaining these regular briefings. A lot has changed since we briefed you last Wednesday, which illustrates the rapidly evolving nature of this epidemic.
As of 6am Geneva time this morning, China has reported 78,190 cases to WHO, including 2718 deaths. Yesterday, only 10 new cases were reported in China outside of Hubei province.
But this is no time for complacency. This is a time for continued vigilance. On Monday, the WHO-China joint mission concluded its visit and delivered its report.
As you also know, the team has traveled to several different provinces, including Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
The team has made a range of findings about the transmissibility of the virus, the severity of disease and the impact of the measures taken.
They found that the epidemic peaked and plateaued between the 23rd of January and the 2nd of February, and has been declining steadily since then.
They have found that there has been no significant change in the genetic makeup of the virus.
The team also estimate that the measures taken in China have averted a significant number of cases. The report contains a wealth of other information, highlights questions for which we still don’t have answers, and includes 22 recommendations.
But the key message that should give all countries hope, courage and confidence is that this virus can be contained.
Indeed, there are many countries that have done exactly that. 14 countries that have had cases have not reported a case for more than a week, and even more importantly, 9 countries have not reported a case for more than two weeks: Belgium, Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and Sweden.
But that doesn’t mean that cases may not come back to these countries. But the cases that made it before have been contained.
Outside China, there are now 2,790 cases in 37 countries, and 44 deaths.
Yesterday, the number of new cases reported outside China exceeded the number of new cases in China for the first time. The sudden increases of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning.
There are now cases linked to Iran in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman. There are now cases linked to Italy in Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Germany, Spain and Switzerland.
Yesterday a joint team between WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control arrived in Rome to review the public health measures that have been put in place and provide technical support.A WHO team will travel to Iran this weekend to provide support.
The increase in cases outside China has prompted some media and politicians to push for a pandemic to be declared. We should not be too eager to declare a pandemic without a careful and clear-minded analysis of the facts.
WHO has already declared a public health emergency of international concern – our highest level of alarm.
Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems.
It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true. We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right things.
Of course, we will not hesitate to use the word pandemic if it is an accurate description of the situation.
We are monitoring the evolution of the epidemic around the clock, 24/7 and are engaging experts internally and externally on this issue.
For the moment, we are not witnessing sustained and intensive community transmission of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.
China has fewer than 80,000 cases in a population of 1.4 billion people. In the rest of the world, there are 2,790 cases, in a population of 6.3 billion.
Do not mistake me: I am not downplaying the seriousness of the situation, or the potential for this to become a pandemic, because it has that potential.
Every scenario is still on the table.
On the contrary, we are saying that this virus has pandemic potential and WHO is providing the tools for every country to prepare accordingly.
The primary objective of all countries with cases must be to contain the virus. As I told you, I read the list of 9 countries who have not reported cases for two weeks. We should do the same: try to contain.
At the same time, all countries, whether they have cases or not, must prepare for a potential pandemic.
Every country needs to be ready to detect cases early, to isolate patients, trace contacts, provide quality clinical care, prevent hospital outbreaks, and prevent community transmission.
There are three priorities:
First, all countries must prioritize protecting health workers.
Second, we must engage communities to protect people who are most at risk of severe disease, particularly the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
And third, we must protect countries that are the most vulnerable, by doing our utmost to contain epidemics in countries with the capacity to do it.
To support countries, WHO has published operational planning guidelines to support country preparedness and response.These guidelines provide a step-by-step guide, with concrete actions according to eight areas – or pillars:
Country-level coordination, planning and monitoring;
Risk communication and community engagement;
Surveillance, rapid response teams and case investigation;
Points of entry;
Infection prevention and control;
And operational support and logistics.
The guidelines also include key performance indicators, and the estimated resources needed to prepare for and respond to a cluster of up to 100 cases.
To supplement these operational guidelines, we have also published technical guidance in many of these areas, which are available on our website.
On Saturday I briefed a meeting of health ministers from African Union countries. There are now 41 countries with laboratory capacity for testing for COVID-19, using lab kits sent by WHO. We are working on sending supplies to the other AU countries. There was only one country that was able to test – now 41, but we should make sure that all countries have that capacity.
I’m also pleased to announce that we have appointed six special envoys on COVID-19, to provide strategic advice and high-level political advocacy and engagement in different parts of the world:
Professor Maha El Rabbat, former Minister of Health of Egypt; Dr David Nabarro, former special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Sustainable Development Goals; Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention;
Dr Mirta Roses, former Director of the WHO Region of the Americas, PAHO; Dr Shin Young-soo, former Regional Director of the WHO Region of the Western Pacific; And Professor Samba Sow, Director-General of the Center for Vaccine Development in Mali.
We are also continuing to strengthen our coordination with the UN Crisis Management Team. Yesterday the Strategic Advisory Group on Infectious Hazards met, and this afternoon we will have our weekly call with the informal group of experts we have put together to advise us.
I would like to thank all countries and partners that have contributed to the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan and the Contingency Fund for Emergencies: Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the European Union, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden the United Kingdom, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Vital Strategies and Resolve to Save Lives.
We also recognize the generous pledge of support from the United States Government to assist China and other affected countries to combat and contain COVID-19. We are now working to distribute these funds as quickly as possible to the priority countries we have identified.
Most of the contributions made so far are pledges, so rather than waiting for funds to be received, we are using our own internal lending mechanism to accelerate the distribution of money. We look forward to receiving monies pledged as soon as possible, because we have limited funding. One of the biggest challenges we face is that too many affected countries are still not sharing data with WHO.
WHO cannot provide appropriate public health guidance without disaggregated data and detailed line lists. We’re communicating with ministers directly, there is some improvement, and we urge all countries to share this data with WHO immediately.
We are not just fighting to contain a virus and save lives. We are also in a fight to contain the social and economic damage a global pandemic could do. We are working with the World Bank and the IMF to estimate the potential economic impact of the epidemic and develop a strategy and policy options for mitigation. We’re in constant contact with the heads of the two organizations.
Once again, this is a time for global solidarity – political solidarity, technical solidarity and financial solidarity. That is the only way to prevent infections and save lives.
Excerpts of WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the mission briefing on COVID-19.