WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the increasing signs of transmission of COVID-19 outside China indicates a narrowing of the window of opportunity to contain the virus outbreak globally.

Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, gave the warning on Saturday during the Emergency Ministerial meeting on COVID-19 organized by the African Union and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ghebreyesus called on all countries to invest urgently in preparedness, stressing the need to take advantage of the window of opportunity available to attack the virus outbreak with a sense of urgency.

He said in a statement that though the total number of cases outside China remains relatively small, however, he expressed concern about the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case.

According to him, China has now reported 75,569 cases, including 2,239 deaths, saying that data from China continues to show a decline in new cases.

“This is welcome news, but it must be interpreted very cautiously. It is far too early to make predictions about this outbreak.

“Outside China, there are now 1,200 cases in 26 countries, with eight deaths. As you know, there is one confirmed case on the African continent in Egypt.

“Several African countries have tested suspected cases of COVID-19, but fortunately they have been found negative.

“We are especially concerned about the increase in cases in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where there are now 18 cases and four deaths in just the past two days,” he said.

The director-general said that WHO had supplied testing kits to Iran, and would continue to provide further support in the coming days and weeks.

“What has been reported from South Korea and Italy yesterday is also a matter of concern and how the virus is now spreading to other parts of the world.

“But in addition to that, as I said earlier in my press conference, the window of opportunity is narrowing.

“This meeting, I hope, will help us come together as a continent in attacking this virus,” he said.

Ghebreyesus averred that the outbreak had captured the world’s attention in just seven weeks of the virus detection, and rightly so, saying it has the potential to cause severe political, social and economic upheaval.

He noted that a WHO-led international team of experts including the Director-General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, had been in China for the past week.

According to him, the experts had visited three provinces in China, and will today travel to the epicenter in Wuhan.

“With every day that passes, we know a little bit more about this virus, and the disease it causes.

“We know that more than 80 percent of patients have mild disease and will recover.

“But the other 20 percent of patients have severe or critical disease, ranging from shortness of breath to septic shock and multi-organ failure.

“These patients require intensive care, using equipment such as respiratory support machines that are, as you know, in short supply in many African countries, and that is a cause for concern.

“In two percent of reported cases, the virus is fatal, and the risk of death increases the older a patient is, and with underlying health conditions,” he said.

The director-general noted that relatively few cases of the virus were seen among children, saying more research was needed to understand why.

He stressed that WHO’s biggest concern was the potential for COVID-19 to spread in countries with weaker health systems.

Ghebreyesus said that WHO Africa Regional Office, in partnership with the Africa CDC, was working hard to prepare countries in Africa for the potential arrival of the virus.

He said that Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC, and Prof. Samba Sow, Director-General of the Centre for Vaccine Development in Mali, as special envoys on COVID-19, to provide strategic advice and high-level political advocacy and engagement in Africa.

“We’ve also published a Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan, with a call for 675 million dollars to support countries, especially those which are most vulnerable,” the director-general said.

He added that WHO had identified 13 priority countries in Africa because of their direct links to China or their high volume of travel with China.

According to him, an increasing number of African countries are now able to test for COVID-19 with laboratory test kits supplied by WHO, compared with only one just a couple of weeks ago.

“Some countries in Africa, including DRC, are also leveraging the capacity they have built up to test for Ebola, to test for COVID-19.

“This is a great example of how investing in a health system can pay dividends for health security,” he said.

The director-general disclosed that WHO had shipped more than 30,000 sets of personal protective equipment to several countries in Africa and was ready to ship another 60,000 to 19 countries in the coming weeks.

He disclosed that about 11,000 African health workers had been trained using WHO’s online courses on COVID-19, which are available free of charge in English, French and other languages at OpenWHO.org.

Ghebreyesus said that WHO was also providing advice to countries on how to do screening, test, contact tracing and treatment for the virus.

He assured the ministers of WHO’s commitment to work with all African countries to prevent transmission, detect and treat cases as early as possible.