Coronavirus containment strategy is working, WHO chief tells Riyadh conference
The numbers of those infected show there is no threat of a pandemic yet, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus says
The head of the World Health Organisation told the opening session of the second Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum on Sunday that the containment strategy for coronavirus was working “in some countries” and called for those efforts to continue as the global crisis rolls on.
The viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 86,000 people globally and killed 2,900. The WHO has named the illness Covid-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus strain that causes it.
“We shouldn’t abandon the containment strategy because we see it’s working in some countries,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, told the 1,300 delegates gathered in Riyadh, without identifying specific cases.
The disease is a serious issue, said Mr Tedros, but must be set in context.
While countries need to prepare for a pandemic, the numbers show there’s no such threat yet, he said.
The global health chief also warned against fear-mongering, saying panic was “more impactful than the virus itself”.
“In China, where it started, the number of patients [contracting the virus] is on the decline and many provinces are not reporting coronavirus cases.”
Mr Tedros said: “We need to go into the numbers, we need to go into the facts and do the right thing instead of panicking.”
But he said a balance must be found between containment and preparation for further outbreak.
“The window of opportunity for containing it is narrowing,” he said. “We need to be preparing side by side for a pandemic”.
Only 6,000 cases have been confirmed outside China among a population of 6.2 billion, he said, meaning there is just one case of coronavirus per one million people.
More than 50 per cent of the countries who have reported coronavirus have only reported one case, he added.
"Because of the intervention that China was taking, the spread of the virus to the rest of the world was slow. We need to use this window of opportunity to contain the virus.”
As well as the World Health Organisation, executives from the World Food Programme and the Islamic Development Bank discussed the global focus on the outbreak and its detrimental impact on funding other humanitarian needs.
WFP head David Beasley said the coverage of coronavirus is a distraction when millions are dying of hunger worldwide.
“We've had a few thousand deaths over the last few months from coronavirus; we had 17,000-18,000 deaths yesterday from hunger,” he said.
“In the last two years with all the crises around the world, the media was concerned with only two things - Trump Trump Trump or Brexit Brexit Brexit - now it’s Trump Trump Trump and coronavirus coronavirus,” he added.
Mr Beasley listed conflicts in the Sahel, Syria and Yemen and food crises in Sudan and Somalia as issues that need “significant” funding right now amid market fluctuations blamed on coronavirus.
Stock markets held up fairly well in the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak in China, but fell sharply when a large number of cases were reported in Italy. In one week, more than half a year of gains were wiped out in a brutal swing reminiscent of the financial crisis more than a decade ago.
“The last thing we need is for the world to panic and bring on an economic recession or collapse when we already have lack of funding with a strong economy,” Mr Beasley told the panel.
The heated discussion came as Iran confirmed its death toll from Covid-19 had reached 54.
"There were 385 new cases of infected people in the last 24 hours, increasing the total number to 978. The death toll is 54," Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV.
Mr Tedros confirmed a small WHO team had visited Iran to assess the situation, and a larger team would depart from the NGO’s hub in Dubai on Monday to provide assistance and bring equipment. He thanked the UAE for its part in helping to deliver the aid to Iran.
Iran, more than any other country in the region, has struggled to control a surge in coronavirus cases. On Sunday, the country's health ministry confirmed infected cases jumped overnight by more than half to 978 people.
The ministry's spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said new cases were confirmed in a number of cities, including Mashhad, which is home to Iran's most important Shiite shrine that attracts pilgrims from across the region. Calls by Iran's civilian government to clerics to close such shrines to the public have not been uniformly followed. The shrine in Mashhad is among those that have remained open.
The new figures represent 11 more deaths than reported on Saturday and a whopping 385 new cases of infections. The new numbers, however, bring down the percentage of deaths to infections to around 5.5 per cent. Still, that is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be much higher than current figures show.
The first cases were not reported in Iran until February 19, the same day that the two elderly infected people died. Since then, of the more than 1,100 cases in the Middle East, the majority trace back to Iran. Cases from Iran have been reported in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the UAE, Qatar, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
The outbreak in Iran has prompted its neighbors to seal their borders to Iranians, while other Gulf states have halted flights to Iran. On Saturday, the US announced heightened warnings about travel to certain regions of Italy and South Korea, as well as a ban on travel to Iran, due to the virus.
Updated: March 4, 2020 02:27 PM