Avoiding blame and other ways people can help fight coronavirus - Friday's COVID-19 WHO Briefing

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization Image: Denis Balibouse

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing to update the public on the COVID-19 outbreak. Streamed live at 17.15 CET on Friday, 27 March.
  • Reacting to raw numbers can be "very, very unhelpful" and not ensure you understand your country's response effort.
  • Blaming countries with rising numbers can lead to disincentives to report and test.
  • With no proven treatment, don't allow misinformation to create drug shortages that can be used to treat other diseases.

Reported global cases of COVID-19 cases surpassed 500,000 this week, underscoring the need for a coordinated effort to fight the virus.

At a briefing for the World Health Organization (WHO) today, officials outlined what efforts were being taken by global leaders and health officials. They also covered new ways individuals could help their communities, from not pursuing untested treatments to putting infection rates into context.

What works: Leveraging proven methods, collaboration
WHO officials stressed, as in past briefings, the need for collaboration in order to find fast answers, outlining some of the measures being taken by researchers and leaders.

At yesterday’s virtual session of G20 leaders, countries such as China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore shared lessons learned in fighting coronavirus. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted what has worked across those countries: early detection and isolation of confirmed cases; identification, follow-up and quarantine of contacts; and the optimization of care.

The WHO-led coordinated response includes a global search for therapeutic treatments until a vaccine can be developed. The Director-General noted that in Norway and Spain, the first patients have been enrolled in the WHO’s Solidarity Trial, an initiative comparing the safety and effectiveness of four different drugs or drug combinations against COVID-19 to speed the generation of robust evidence to learn which drugs work.

Collaboration efforts across countries will also require adherence to common protocols to that allow for the comparison of results across different countries.

This coordination across borders, labs and communities remains essential. "This problem can only be solved with international cooperation and international solidarity," said the Director-General.


What works: Avoiding blame
WHO officials cautioned against pointing blame at countries with a high number of cases. Doing so, says Michael J. Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, could create disincentives for countries to report cases and to test at all. “Countries who test and find cases and do lots of testing and know where the virus is should be commended,” he said.

What works: Putting numbers into context
The briefing also cautioned against reacting at raw daily numbers which can be “very, very unhelpful", saying context was crucial to understanding what new infection or mortality numbers really meant.

“What is the number of cases as a proportion of the population? What is the number of tests as a proportion of the whole population? What’s the positivity rate of tests? How many tests have been done and of them, how many are positive?” Questions like those, said Ryan, provide a better understanding of the impact of the disease and the effort being made by public health authorities.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

What works: Avoiding misinformation about unproven treatments
Officials stressed multiple times in the briefing that there are no proven treatments or drugs for coronavirus. That said, misinformation about potential treatments has created drug shortages, complicating the treatment of other diseases. Said the Director-General: we “need to ensure that using unproven drugs does not create a shortage of those medicines to treat diseases for which they have proven effective.”

The Director-General noted that duing the Ebola epidemic, some medicines thought to be effective were not when compared during a clinical trial. “The history of medicine is strewn with examples of drugs that worked on paper, or in a test tube, but didn't work in humans or were actually harmful,” said.

Currently, those infected with coronavirus can be treated through clinical management, Ryan explained, with measures including early admission to hospital (for those with underlying conditions or who are developing severe disease), oxygen and the provision of oxygen; and the ability to ventilate patients in order to get them through the worst of the infection.

“We must follow the evidence," said the Director-General. "There are no short-cuts."

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