KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 25 — The World Health Organization (WHO) has played down talk of a coronavirus pandemic, amid a surge in new cases and deaths of Covid-19 worldwide.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the word pandemic — used to describe a serious disease that is spreading in an uncontrolled way globally — “does not fit the facts”.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has,” Tedros said at a briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, Reuters reported. “Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
The head of the United Nations public health agency added that authorities were not yet seeing an uncontained global spread of the virus or witnessing widespread serious cases or deaths, and that it can be beaten.
But Ghebreyesus noted that “the sudden increase in new cases is certainly very concerning”, especially in countries like Italy and Iran, which were presumably spread by asymptomatic carriers.
“We must focus on containment while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic,” he said.
“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,” he added.
Reuters also quoted WHO emergencies programme head Dr Mike Ryan as saying that the agency needs to be “very careful” when looking at the first wave of infections in any newly affected country, such as in Iran, where at least 12 people have died from the coronavirus and 66 have been infected.
This is because “we may only be detecting severe cases and the deaths would be over-represented”, Dr Mike said.
Experts, however, said it was hard to believe that Covid-19 would not further spread worldwide, and claimed that if the current outbreaks in South Korea, Iran, and Italy cannot be brought under control, it would then fit the criteria for a pandemic.
“We now consider this to be a pandemic in all but name, and it’s only a matter of time before the World Health Organization starts to use the term in its communications,” said Dr Bharat Pankhania from the University of Exeter Medical School.
“This gives us focus and tells us that the virus is now appearing in other countries and transmitting far afield from China. However, it doesn’t change our approach in monitoring the outbreak,” Dr Bharat told The Guardian.
The paper also quoted Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, as saying that the immediate implication of doing this is that many different countries around the world may be sources of Covid-19 infections.
“This makes it much harder for any one country to detect and contain imported cases and trying to do so will place ever greater demands on national health systems,” he reportedly said.
The WHO has since declared the novel coronavirus, originating from Wuhan in China, as a public health emergency of international concern. Twenty-two cases of Covid-19 have been reported in Malaysia, of which 20 have since recovered.
The last time the WHO declared a pandemic, on the other hand, was during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, which also plagued Malaysia.