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WHO and foundations launch virus fund

WHO and two international foundations launched a first-of-its-kind fund to help vulnerable populations and weak health systems cope with the pandemic.

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization and two international foundations launched a first-of-its-kind fund on Friday to help nations with vulnerable populations and weak health systems cope with the global coronavirus pandemic.

WHO officials said the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, co-hosted by the U.N. Foundation and Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, also is receiving major support from Google and Facebook and is open to tax-deductible contributions from businesses, philanthropists and other individuals. It will be used initially to beef up scarce supplies of COVID-19 test kits and other medical equipment.

“Until now we have been relying mainly on governments to support the response," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a webcast news briefing.

"Now everyone can contribute. Funds raised will be used to coordinate the response, to buy masks, gloves, gowns and goggles for health workers, to buy diagnostic tests, to improve surveillance and to invest in research and development," said Tedros, a politician and public health expert who has headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries.

The United Nations health agency said the major tech companies will match donations raised through their platforms for the health fund,

The new fund in intended to create a continuing funding source and to fill in gaps between programs aided by the tens of billions of dollars in aid announced days earlier by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

“We hope it will become the foremost way for businesses, individuals and philanthropies to get involved in this fight against this virus on a global scale, which is exactly what we need at this moment,” said Kate Dodson, vice president of global health at the U.N. Foundation.

Scott Pendergast, director of strategic planning at WHO’s emergency preparedness and response program, said donations will buy medical equipment for countries with weaker healthcare systems.

“One of the major actions," he said, "is making sure that countries are prepared for and can respond to COVID-19 and this includes putting in place coordination mechanisms at the country level."

Europe now the epicenter

As of Friday, there were more than 132,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus globally, including nearly 5,000 deaths.

About 81,000 of the cases and 3,180 deaths were in China, where the virus was first detected in late December. The other 51,700 cases and 1,775 deaths were spread among 123 nations and territories, with Italy, Iran and South Korea by far the hardest hit.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres sought to assure people it is "absolutely natural" to feel confusion and anxiety in the face of a global coronavirus pandemic, but that the spread of COVID-19 eventually will peak and the global economy will recover.

“We are facing a health threat unlike any other in our lifetimes. Meanwhile, the virus is spreading. The danger is growing and our health systems, economies and day-to-day lives are being severely tested," Guterres said in a video message.

"We must act together to slow the spread of the virus and look after each other. This is a time for prudence, not panic. Science, not stigma. Facts, not fear," he advised. "Even though the situation has been classified as a pandemic, it is one we can control. We can slow down transmissions, prevent infections and save lives."

As confirmed cases and deaths climbed particularly in Europe and the United States, officials announced widespread disruptions to schools, businesses, sporting events and other major gatherings. Diplomatic channels and gatherings also turned to virtual ones.

Switzerland's Federal Office of Public Health noted on its website "there is now a risk of becoming infected with new coronavirus in almost all parts of the world." As a result, it said, Swiss authorities would "no longer be referring to ‘affected areas' " as any different from the rest of the globe.

U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, freeing up US$50 billion to help fight the pandemic. He said he also was empowering the U.S. health and human services secretary to waive some laws and regulations to make it easier for patients to be treated and for the virus contained.

"Europe has now become the epicenter of the pandemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from China," Tedros told the news briefing. "More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic."

But Tedros said he was encouraged that many nations now are adhering to WHO's recommendations for how to respond and have emergency plans in place along with some operational lab testing.

The U.N. health agency already has distributed more than US$10 million from an emergency fund for contingencies. The money is primarily being used to buy much-needed medical supplies, such as masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

WHO has sent almost 1.5 million diagnostic test kits to 120 countries, Tedros said. Still, he noted, the agency's previous estimate that US$675 million will be needed through April for preparedness and response efforts will fall short as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads.