Health and Healthcare Systems

It's time to play offense - Monday's COVID-19 WHO briefing

Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus (COVID-2019), in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2020.

Image: REUTERS/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 16.45 CET on Monday 23 March.
  • WHO officials stressed the need to act offensively, not just defensively, to fight the novel coronavirus.

It’s time to go on the offensive.

That was the message from World Health Organization (WHO) in a briefing to media today.


Measures such as physical distancing have been powerful, but they are only defensive measures, explained WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Physical distancing measures can give countries a second chance to save lives by buying time while more aggressive measures are developed. But there "comes a time when you have to step forward", said Michael J. Ryan, Chief Executive Director of WHO Health Emergencies.

Those aggressive tactics include:

  • Strategic testing, tracing and isolation of contacts. Health workers should prioritize testing suspected cases. Once infected cases are identified, contact tracing can help further prevent the spread of the disease. “We know that is [an] effective way to prevent onward transmission,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead.
  • Staying informed. The most recent, reliable information is key. WHO officials recommended that people stay up-to-date with recommendations from their governments to know their role. “Fear is normal", said Van Kerkhove. “It can be used in a productive way”.

    A special messaging service launched in partnership with WhatsApp and Facebook last week is one way WHO officials say people can get reliable information. Since its launch last Friday, the service now has 10 million users and will be expanded into languages such as French, Spanish and Arabic this week.
  • Developing effective therapeutics. As there is yet no treatment for coronavirus, research will be essential. Measures such as the Solidarity Trial launched last week, an international WHO initiative that compares untested treatments with each other, can speed the search for a solution.

    "Small, observational and non-randomized studies will not give us the answers we need”, said the Director-General. Findings “without the right evidence could raise false hope and even do more harm than good".

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

Through a mix of aggressive measures, the virus can be stopped. “We need to go after the virus instead of the virus going after us", said Ryan.

As in past briefings, WHO officials stressed the need for everyone in the world to work as a team. To drive that point home, officials kicked off the briefing with the launch of an awareness campaign created in partnership with FIFA, the international governing body of football.

“We need to go after the virus instead of the virus going after us.”

Michael J. Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

Such teamwork will be essential, said WHO officials, to stem a fast growing pandemic that grew from 200,000 to 300,000 cases worldwide in just four days.

“We’re not prisoners to statistics", said the Director-General. “We’re not helpless bystanders".

“You can’t win a football game only by defending”, he added. “You have to attack as well.”

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