Health and Healthcare Systems

WHO coronavirus briefing: Isolation, testing and tracing comprise the 'backbone' of response

Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Geneva, Switzerland, March 16, 2020.

Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the outbreak. Image: Christopher Black/WHO Via Reuters

Linda Lacina
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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COVID-19

  • The World Health Organization held a media briefing to update the public on the COVID-19 outbreak. Streamed live at 17.00 CET on Monday, 18 March.
  • WHO officials stressed the importance for countries to test, isolate and trace new cases to suppress the spread of the virus.
  • Suppression is essential for buying time to develop new treatments and manufacture much-needed equipment.

Take every precaution. That was the message from a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing Wednesday, one that stressed the need for a comprehensive approach against the COVID-19 coronavirus, even for countries with just a few cases.

According to officials, more countries need to isolate, test and trace new cases to effectively suppress and control the virus' spread. This must be the "backbone of the response in every country", said the Director-General.

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Countries that have used the "full package" of measures have been able to turn the tide, such as the Republic of Korea, said Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The country educated, empowered and engaged communities, he said. It also expanded lab capacity and exhaustively performed contact tracing.

Where there had once been 800 cases, he said, there are now just 90. "It didn't surrender," said the Director-General.

Some countries that currently have only sporadic cases have not yet taken steps to cancel mass gatherings or enact social distancing. Those countries should not assume that community transmission will not come to their countries. "Don’t assume you won’t have transmission."

As the Director-General explained, the virus can accelerate after a tipping point. If you have no cases, he said, it is better to "cut it from the bud".

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Communities should also not assume that the coronavirus is a disease that only the elderly face. Twenty-percent of deaths in South Korea were people under 60, said Michael J. Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. "Younger, healthier people can still experience severe symptoms," he said. "We must be very, very careful."

Suppression can buy time for additional measures to be developed to treat the infected. The first vaccine trial is under way, explained the officials. Additionally, many countries from Canada to Norway to Argentina have joined a new international Solidarity Trial to study how untested treatments compare.

Suppression can also buy time to ensure that additional tests and the equipment to run them can be manufactured for those who need them. It can also help ensure that the current shortage of face masks, gloves and other pieces of personal protection equipment can be addressed.

That suppression, however, will take extensive collaboration and coordination. "This virus is presenting as an unprecedented threat," explained the Director-General. "We can come together against a common enemy, an enemy against humanity."

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For more information, visit the WHO coronavirus page.

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