The World Health Organization said the coronavirus outbreak that has swept from China to a number of countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe is not yet a pandemic, but it urged countries to prepare for its arrival on the assumption that a declaration may come.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries should be working to protect health workers, engaging groups that are at highest risk—for instance, the elderly—and striving to contain spread of the virus to the highest degree possible to slow its arrival in countries that don’t have the means to respond to its threat.
“For the moment, we’re not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we’re not witnessing large-scale severe disease or deaths,” he told journalists during a briefing from the agency’s Geneva headquarters. “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
Despite that message, Tedros, as he is known, and the senior WHO executives who attended the briefing with him spoke with palpably greater urgency about the need for the world to prepare to face this new coronavirus, provisionally named SARS-CoV2. The disease the virus causes has been named Covid-19.
Their warnings come as several explosive new fronts in the battle to drive the virus out of humans have opened up. South Korea, which had 30 cases at the beginning of last week, reported Monday that it has recorded 833 cases and seven deaths.
Iran, which reported its first cases late last week, has now diagnosed more than 60 cases, 13 of them fatal, according to the country’s news agency, IRNA. And Italy put a number of towns in the northern part of the country on lockdown after an eruption of cases over the weekend. The country has reported more than 150 cases and at least six deaths.
These new battlegrounds have emerged at a time when the outbreak has appeared to be declining in China, which imposed containment measures that are unprecedented in modern times. Tens of millions of people have been quarantined for weeks in a bid to stop or slow spread of the new virus, with schools and workplaces closed and strict limitations on movements.
A WHO mission to China, which concluded on Monday, found that the epidemic there peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2, said Bruce Aylward, international team lead for the WHO-China joint mission on Covid-19. Aylward revealed that fact at a press conference in Beijing.
The mission—made up of a team of international experts whose names have not been made public—has presented a report to the WHO with 22 recommendations, Tedros said. The report has not yet been made public.
He noted the group concluded, based on the data they saw, that the case fatality rate—the number of infected people who died—was between 2% and 4% in Wuhan, where the outbreak appeared to begin, and 0.7% elsewhere in China. None of those figures will allay fears of what the toll of this virus might be if it spreads globally.
To date outside of China, 28 countries have reported 2,074 cases and 23 deaths, Tedros said. China has reported 77,362 cases, and 2,618 deaths.
Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, suggested countries need to be working full bore to be ready to deal with the virus.
“It is time to prepare. It is time to do everything you would do in preparing for a pandemic,” he insisted.
Continuing to focus on trying to contain the virus—a goal many infectious diseases experts are skeptical can be met—buys time, Ryan said, noting if the illness can be prevented from spreading in Europe until flu season ends, hospitals won’t face a double blow.
“Even slowing down the virus by a month or six weeks has a massive positive benefit to the system,’’ he said.
But people need to be realistic about the limits of containment. “We cannot shut down the world,” Ryan said. “That’s not going to work.”
Countries should be working on trying to reduce the risk of imported cases, reduce the risk of spread from cases that get in, and increase the chance that people who get sick survive the infection. “But I think we have to be very, very careful in trying to suggest that we could absolutely stop the virus from spreading from one country to the next,” he said. “I don’t think that’s possible.”