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WHO declares coronavirus a pandemic amid '13-fold increase' in cases

More than 100,000 people have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 March, 2020

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The World Health Organisation on Wednesday declared COVD-19 a pandemic, as the novel coronavirus continued to spread across much of the globe.
The new coronavirus outbreak can now be described as a pandemic, the head of the World Health Organisation announced on Wednesday, as the number of confirmed cases increased worldwide.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was troubled by the spread and severity of the outbreak, along with a lack of action taken to combat it.

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we're deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction," he told a news conference in Geneva.

"We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic."

The number of cases in over 100 countries around the world has risen to more than 124,000, with over 4,500 deaths, including a jump in fatalities in Iran and Italy in particular.

Read more: Meet the Saudi woman scientist working on a coronavirus vaccine with US-based Moderna Therapeutics

China remains the worst-affected country with more than 80,000 confirmed cases and over 3,000 deaths.

Tedros said that over the past two weeks, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries had tripled.

He said he expected the number of cases and deaths would grow in the coming days and weeks.

"Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly," he told reporters, but he stressed that "describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by the virus."

It should not be taken by countries as a signal to give up on efforts to contain the virus with methods like contact-tracing, he said.

'Be more aggressive'

Tedros pointed out that over 90 percent of cases had been registered in just four countries, and that countries with no or only a few cases could still halt the virus in its tracks.

"We should double down, and we should be more aggressive," Tedros said, adding: "We are not saying the world should move from containment to mitigation... the blended approach should continue.

"It will be a mistake to abandon the containment strategy," he said.

He acknowledged that the world had "never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus," but emphasised that "we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time."

 
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Countries can still change the course of the outbreak, he said.

Michael Ryan, who heads WHO's emergencies programme, insisted on the need to slow the outbreak to give time to hospitals to prepare for more cases, warning that many countries' health systems were showing a lack of resilience.

"If you do not try to suppress this virus it can overwhelm your health system," he said.

Tedros said the WHO was grateful for the measures being taken in countries around the globe and was aware that they were taking a "heavy toll" on societies.

Read also: A tale of two outbreaks: How Gulf countries succeeded where Iran failed on containing coronavirus

He also said hard-hit Iran was trying its best to control the outbreak but needed more supplies.

Iran, whose health sector has been hit hard by years of US sanctions against the country, is suffering from a shortage of ventilators, oxygen and protective gear for health workers, reporters were told.

On Wednesday, Iran reported 63 new deaths from the novel coronavirus, the highest single-day toll in the three weeks since the Islamic republic announced the first deaths from the outbreak.

Iran is yet to officially impose quarantines but authorities have repeatedly called on people to refrain from travelling.

The announcement on Wednesday came as Kuwait suspended all commercial flights leaving from and arriving at Kuwait City International Airport "from Friday until further notice" to forestall the spread of coronavirus.

The country would also "forbid" its residents meeting in "restaurants, cafes and commercial centres", the Kuwait News Agency said.

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in Qatar jumped by 238 to 262 on Wednesday, the health ministry said, warning that they were likely a result of community transmission.

"The Ministry of Public Health announced today that it recorded 238 new confirmed cases of coronavirus 2019," the ministry said in a statement.

Qatar has not reported any fatalities but has closed universities and schools, cancelled many public events including the MotoGP and banned travellers from 14 countries entering the country.

Similarly, Lebanon on Wednesday suspended flights from countries hit hardest by the novel coronavirus after announcing its second death from the pandemic in two days.

The Mediterranean nation has recorded at least 61 cases of COVID-19.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab said Lebanon would suspend all trips to and from Italy, South Korea, Iran and China, the hardest hit countries.

It would also stop arrivals from France, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, he said.

In Turkey, authorities confirmed a Turkish citizen tested positive for the COVID-19 virus on Tuesday evening, after Ankara remained unaffected by the viral infection for several months.

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