Coronavirus pandemic official: WHO chief criticizes "alarming levels of inaction"

Coronavirus is officially a pandemic, the World Health Organization has confirmed today, as COVID-19 cases exceed 118,000 across 114 countries around the world. At the same time, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO, expressed concerns that the situation was not being taken seriously by every country.

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock," the Director-General said today, "and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction."

Over the past two weeks, the WHO says, the number of cases of COVID-19 outside of China have increased 13-fold. The number of countries reporting cases has tripled. The official death toll related to novel coronavirus has hit 4,291, and "thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals," Dr Ghebreyesus said.

"We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic," the WHO lead concluded. "Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death."

COVID-19: "A pandemic that can be controlled"

The stakes – and responsibilities – are high, Dr Ghebreyesus argued. "We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus," he explained. "And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time."

However not everybody seems to have reacted to that with the appropriate level of urgency. "We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough," the WHO Director-General said, "all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of COVID-19 cases can prevent those cases becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission."

While Dr Ghebreyesus did not call out any specific country by name, he did outline some of the reasons for inaction he and the WHO are seeing. That includes lack of capacity, lack of resources, or "a lack of resolve."

It's likely to be seen as a rebuke in part to the US, where the Trump administration has been widely criticized for taking a hands-off approach to detecting and arresting the spread of coronavirus. While the US CDC and other agencies have warned of the potential for health disruption, a shortage of COVID-19 test kits and rules that limit the eligibility for access to what tests are actually available have stymied an accurate count of to what extent coronavirus has entered the community spread phase.

Some individual US states have moved to begin their own coronavirus testing outreach, but it's unclear how effective in the larger scheme of the problem that will be. Indeed, Dr Ghebreyesus insisted that it needed to be a holistic, country-wide effort if growth was to be limited.

"I have said from the beginning that countries must take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach, built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimize impact," the WHO Director-General said. That includes working to "find, isolate, test, and treat every COVID-19 case and trace every contact."

The US approach to COVID-19

Yesterday, in its first public briefing in a week, the CDC confirmed that there had been more coronavirus cases diagnosed. According to Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, "it's fair to say that as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time either this year or next be exposed to this virus and there's a good chance many will become sick."

The primary at-risk groups remain the elderly – starting at 60, and rising after that – and people with serious underlying health conditions. "The people who are at greatest risk are those older and who also have serious long-term health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease," Dr Messonnier explained.

The official advice remains to avoid close contact with people who are sick, clean your hands frequently, and avoid contact with high-touch surfaces in public areas.