• The World Health Organization held a media briefing to update the public on the COVID-19 outbreak. Streamed live at 17.00 CET on Friday, 20 March.
  • A new health alert messaging system in partnership with Facebook and WhatsApp can help people get questions answered about the virus.

As worldwide cases of COVID-19 rise above 254,000 and one country after another increases restrictions on people's movement, here's what you need to know about the spread of the coronavirus, from officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva.

New health alert service launched with WhatsApp

At today's briefing, the WHO announced the launch of a messaging service in conjunction with partners WhatsApp and Facebook. The service, available only in English for now, has the potential to reach 2 billion people and help get reliable information to those who need it.

The service can be accessed through a link that opens a conversation on WhatsApp or by sending "hi" to the number 0041798931892. Once a conversation is activated, users can access a menu of options that can help answer their questions about COVID-19.

Image: WHO

Coronavirus is a risk to people of all ages
Studies released this week found that the young have just as much to fear from COVID-19 as the elderly, WHO officials said. People under 50 comprise a significant number of people requiring hospitalization, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

Two out of 3 people admitted to intensive care units in Italy were younger than 50, said Michael Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme. Looking just at the mortality rates facing older people does not fully address the risk the disease presents, he said. "Let's not just look at mortality rates", said Ryan. "Let’s look at the impact to society".

Dr Tedros warned young people to follow the recommendations from their local health authorities and limit physical gatherings. "You’re not invincible", he said. "This virus could put you in hospital for weeks or kill you. The choices you make could mean the difference between life and death for other people".

Spread the word about how to stay safe, he said, but don't spread the virus.

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

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Tips for keeping individuals and communities safe and healthy
As new cities and countries enact lockdowns and tighten restrictions, the WHO officials shared tips to preserve mental and physical health. These include:

  • Making time for exercise: The WHO recommends 30 minutes a day for adults and 1 hour a day for children. The Director-General suggested taking a walk or hike, or if local guidelines recommend staying inside, watching a workout video online, practicing yoga or walking up and down stairs in your home.
  • Taking breaks: For those working from home, they suggested taking regular breaks and avoiding sitting in the same position, if possible.
  • Practicing physical distancing, not social distancing. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead, stressed that social connections are essential to coping during the pandemic, but asked that those bonds be maintained at a physical distance. Dr Tedros recommended that people check in on neighbours and friends, while keeping to local guidelines. "Supporting other people can help you as much as it does them". He added: "Compassion is a medicine".
  • Protecting healthcare workers. Don't use masks unless you are caring for a sick person at home, to allow critical equipment to be used by the right people. Stick to local guidelines to avoid spreading the virus and putting additional pressures on the healthcare system.

"Compassion is a medicine."

—Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

Addressing the increasingly complex equipment gap
The WHO continues to grapple with a global shortage in personal protection equipment (PPE), such as gowns, gloves and masks, in addition to a shortage of lab tests. The organization is developing estimates to address what the potential need might be. "A shortfall is a difference between what you need and what you have," said Ryan. "And right now we don’t know how much we need because we don’t know how fast this is going to develop".

Ryan said that the WHO had distributed 1.5 million lab tests around the world. Given the amount needed, testing could need to scale up 80 to 100 times. "It's not about doubling or tripling", said Ryan. "We may need to increase 80 fold".

The WHO is working with countries to understand what stocks they might currently have, as well as studying market analysis on supply chains and working with private companies to increase production. Once estimates are completed, the WHO can tackle getting tests, PPE and key experts to countries that need them given the lockdowns and restrictions in place in many parts of the world.

Vaccine developments - what's ahead
Multiple vaccines are in development, according to WHO officials, and the first trials have begun just 60 days after the genetic sequence was first shared by China. Officials warned, however, that it would be some time before the vaccine could be fully distributed. It must be properly tested and deemed safe, for one. But then, as Ryan noted, it must be manufactured and distributed at scale so everyone has access. "The world is not protected until everyone is protected". he said.

For more information, visit the WHO coronavirus page.