WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the mission briefing on COVID-19
Excellencies, colleagues and friends.
It’s hard to believe that only 50 days ago, WHO’s country office was notified of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan city.
In just seven weeks, this outbreak has captured the world’s attention, and rightly so, because it has the potential to cause severe political, social and economic upheaval.
WHO, as you know, declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern less than a month after the first reported cases, after we started to see signs of human-to-human transmission outside China.
As of 6am Geneva time this morning, China has reported 74,279 cases to WHO, including 2006 deaths.
Outside China, there are now 918 cases in 25 countries, with three deaths.
The data from China appear to show a decline in new cases. This is welcome news, but it must be interpreted very cautiously. It’s far too early to make predictions about this outbreak.
Outside China, we have seen a steady drip of new cases, but we have not yet seen sustained local transmission, except in specific circumstances like the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
Of course, that could still change. We still have a window of opportunity to prevent a broader global crisis, thanks to China’s aggressive efforts to contain the outbreak at its source.
Those efforts have slowed the spread of the virus internationally, which has bought the world time.
Seven weeks ago, this virus was completely unknown to us. With every day that passes, we know a little bit more.
We know that more than 80% of patients have mild disease and will recover.
But the other 20% of patients have severe or critical disease, ranging from shortness of breath to septic shock and multi-organ failure.
In 2% of reported cases, the virus is fatal, and the risk of death increases the older a patient is, and with underlying health conditions.
We see relatively few cases among children. More research is needed to understand why.
As you know, a WHO-led international team of experts is now on the ground in China, working with their Chinese counterparts to find answers to some of the things we don’t know, including the severity of disease, the transmissibility of the virus and the impact of the measures that China has taken.
The WHO-led joint team brings together leading experts from China and around the world, with a shared commitment to pooling their scientific expertise to better understand the outbreak and save lives.
The mission was launched under the GOARN framework and we thank all partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network for their continued support and partnership.
The team includes experts in epidemiology, virology, clinical management, outbreak control and public health from the following institutions:
The National University of Singapore
The Saint Petersburg Pasteur Institute
The National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan
The Seoul National University College of Medicine, Republic of Korea
The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control
The U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control
The U.S. National Institutes of Health
The Russian National Medical Research Center of Phthisiopulmonology and Infectious Diseases
And the Robert Koch Institute, Germany.
Since the declaration of the PHEIC we have intensified our coordination, both internally and externally.
We’ve convened the WHO Health Security Council, a daily meeting of myself, Dr Mike Ryan, the Regional Directors and other senior staff, to coordinate our response.
I am also taking advice from a range of experts, as a complement to the Emergency Committee, to ensure we understand the evolution of the outbreak and respond accordingly, and a weekly meeting is held with these international experts.
Two weeks ago I briefed the Secretary-General and we agreed to activate the United Nations Crisis Management Team, led by Dr Mike Ryan, to enable WHO to focus on the health response while other agencies bring their expertise to bear on the wider social, economic and developmental implications of the outbreak, so we are all working to our strengths. That coordination as you know is very crucial.
Myself and the Secretary-General have a lot of confidence in Dr Ryan to lead the response.
We’re working with manufacturers of personal protective equipment through the Pandemic Supply Chain Network to address the severe disruption in the market for masks, gloves, gowns and other PPE, to ensure we can protect health workers.
We’re partnering with the Africa CDC to coordinate our efforts to prepare African countries for the potential arrival of the virus.
As you know, one of the concerns is if this virus makes it to countries with weaker health systems.
By the end of this week, 40 countries in Africa and 29 in the Americas will have the ability to detect COVID-19.
We’ve also shipped supplies of personal protective equipment to 21 countries, and will ship to another 106 countries in the coming weeks.
We’re training thousands of health workers, and we’re providing advice to countries on how to do screening, testing, contact tracing and treatment.
Last week we brought the international research community together to identify research priorities, especially in the areas of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
We’ve also published a Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, with a call for US$675 million to support countries to prepare.
Since we issued this call two weeks ago, there have been several pledges of support, which we welcome, but the response is very slow and we ask for your support to address this problem.
The solidarity of the international community is very important, especially to help countries with weaker health systems to prepare.
We need action now and I am counting on the international community to step up if we are to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have.
We’re also concerned about the potential for large donations to be channeled towards vaccine development, depriving the response of much-needed funds for simple public health interventions that can save lives now.
We need vaccines, that’s important, but we need to strike a balance, it’s not either-or.
We need balanced investments in short term and longer-term solutions.
As I said, these investments are needed to take advantage of the window of opportunity we have now – an opportunity we must not squander.
I thank you.