COVID-19 not yet a pandemic, says UN health agency chief

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while COVID-19 has 'pandemic potential,' it has not yet reached that stage

So far seven people have died in Italy since Saturday and 231 people are infected
So far seven people have died in Italy since Saturday and 231 people are infected

The sudden increase in cases of COVID-19 in Iran, Italy and South Korea was ‘deeply concerning,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.  

Speaking to reporters on Monday, he said that currently, "we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large scale severe disease or deaths.” 

"Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Italy has reported a rapid increase in cases of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 since 21 February. So far seven people have died in Italy since Saturday and 231 people are infected. 

Lombardy, where the spread is said to have originated, has been put into lockdown and about 50,000 people have been ordered to stay indoors as strict quarantine restrictions have been introduced.

An initial investigation by Italian authorities has found several clusters of cases in different regions of northern Italy, with evidence of local transmission of COVID-19.

A WHO-led team of experts from WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) arrived in Italy on Monday to support Italian authorities in understanding the situation.

WHO experts are providing support in the areas of clinical management, infection prevention and control, surveillance and risk communication. At this stage, the focus is on limiting further human-to-human transmission.

WHO said that while limited local person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in countries outside of China was expected, the rapid increase in reported cases in Italy over the past few days was of concern. The organisation said it should also be noted that based on the current data, in the majority of cases people were experiencing mild or no symptoms.  

 “COVID-19 is a new virus that we need to take very seriously. This mission to Italy is one of the ways in which WHO/Europe is supporting countries across the Region. We are working hard with our Member States to ensure that they are ready for COVID-19, preparing for the arrival of cases and possible localized spread. It is vital that we treat patients with dignity and compassion, put measures in place to prevent onward transmission, and protect health workers,” said WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge.

Health authorities in Italy are implementing measures to prevent onward transmission, including the closing of schools and bars and cancelling of sports events and other mass gatherings in the areas affected. WHO said this aligned with the containment strategy currently being implemented globally in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

“WHO stands by the Government of Italy in its efforts and commitment to mitigate this outbreak and manage the cases effectively. Now is the time for solidarity and cooperation, to work together to protect everyone’s health,” said Kluge.

The new strain of coronavirus, which originated last year in Hubei province in China, causes a respiratory disease called Covid-19. China has seen more than 77,659 infections and 2,663 deaths.

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