WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 27 February 2020
Good afternoon to everyone online and in the room.
Let me start, as usual, with the latest numbers.
As of 6am Geneva time this morning, China has reported a total of 78,630 cases of COVID-19 to WHO, including 2747 deaths.
But as you know, it’s what is happening in the rest of the world that is now our greatest concern.
Outside China, there are now 3474 cases in 44 countries, and 54 deaths.
We are at a decisive point.
For the past two days, the number of new cases reported in the rest of the world has exceeded the number of new cases in China.
And in the past 24 hours, seven countries have reported cases for the first time: Brazil, Georgia, Greece, North Macedonia, Norway, Pakistan and Romania.
My message to each of these countries is: this is your window of opportunity.
If you act aggressively now, you can contain this virus. You can prevent people getting sick. You can save lives. So my advice to these countries is to move swiftly.
The epidemics in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Italy and the Republic of Korea demonstrate what this virus is capable of.
But this virus is not influenza. With the right measures, it can be contained.
That is one of the key messages from China. The evidence we have is that there does not appear to be widespread community transmission.
In Guangdong, scientists tested more than 320,000 samples from the community and only 0.14% were positive for COVID-19.
That suggests that containment is possible.
Indeed, there are many countries that have done exactly that.
There are several countries that have not reported a case for more than two weeks: Belgium, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Philippines, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam.
Each of these countries is different. And each shows that aggressive, early measures can prevent transmission before the virus gets a foothold.
Of course, that doesn’t mean those countries won’t have more cases. In fact, as of Tuesday, both Finland and Sweden had reported no cases for more than two weeks, but unfortunately both had new cases yesterday.
That’s why we advocate a comprehensive approach. Every country must be ready for its first case, its first cluster, the first evidence of community transmission and for dealing with sustained community transmission. And it must be preparing for all of those scenarios at the same time.
No country should assume it won’t get cases. That could be a fatal mistake, quite literally.
This virus does not respect borders. It does not distinguish between races or ethnicities. It has no regard for a country’s GDP or level of development.
The point is not only to prevent cases arriving on your shores. The point is what you do when you have cases.
But we are not hopeless. We are not defenseless. There are things every country and every person can do.
Every country needs to be ready to detect cases early, to isolate patients, trace contacts, provide quality clinical care, prevent hospital outbreaks, and prevent community transmission.
There are some vital questions that every country must be asking itself today.
Are we ready for the first case? What will we do when it arrives?
Do we have an isolation unit ready to go? Do we have enough medical oxygen, ventilators and other vital equipment?
How will we know if there are cases in other areas of the country?
Is there a reporting system that health facilities are all using, and a way to raise an alert if there is a concern?
Do our health workers have the training and equipment they need to stay safe?
Do our health workers know how to take samples correctly from patients?
Do we have the right measures at airports and border crossings to test people who are sick?
Do our labs have the right chemicals that allow them to test samples?
Are we ready to treat patients with severe or critical disease?
Do our hospitals and clinics have the right procedures to prevent and control infections?
Do our people have the right information? Do they know what the disease looks like?
It’s not usually a runny nose. In 90% of cases it’s a fever and in 70% of cases a dry cough.
Are we ready to fight rumours and misinformation with clear and simple messages that people can understand?
Are we able to have our people on our side to fight this outbreak.
These are the questions that every health minister must be ready to answer now.
These are the questions that will be the difference between 1 case and 100 cases in the coming days and weeks.
If the answer to any of these questions is no, your country has a gap that this virus will exploit.
Even developed countries could be surprised.
Our message continues to be that this virus has pandemic potential and WHO is providing the tools to help every country to prepare accordingly.
We’ve shipped testing kits to 57 countries and personal protective equipment to 85 countries who need it.
We have trained more than 80,000 health workers through our online courses, in multiple languages.
We’ve issued operational guidelines, with concrete actions countries can take in eight key areas to prevent, detect and manage cases.
The guidelines also include key performance indicators, and the estimated resources needed to prepare for and respond to a cluster of up to 100 cases. This is not enough, so we will do more.
WHO stands ready to support every country to develop its national plan.
Once again, this is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action now to prevent infections and save lives now.
Fear and panic doesn’t help. People can have concerns and rightly so. People can be worried and rightly so. The most important thing is to calm down and do the right things to fight this very dangerous virus.