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WHO chief hopes for 2-year limit to pandemic

WHO's chief offered a tentative timetable for subduing the pandemic in less than two years if nations can pull together in fighting it.

GENEVA (AN) — World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus offered a tentative timetable on Friday for ending the coronavirus pandemic in less than two years if nations can pull together in fighting it.

Tedros expressed his hope the pandemic might be brought under control and eliminated in less time than it took the world to stop the influenza pandemic that lasted from February 1918 to April 1920.

“We hope to finish this pandemic (in) less than two years, especially if we can pool our efforts,” said Tedros, a politician and public health expert who headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries.

"COVID-19 is a once-in-a-century health crisis," he told a virtual press briefing. "But it also gives us a once-in-a-century opportunity to shape the world our children will inherit — the word we want."

The 1918 pandemic, misnamed the Spanish flu, also came from a respiratory virus that jumped from animals to people. To cope with that pandemic, health officials a century ago — as is the custom now — promoted social distancing, hand washing and face masks as key measures to slow and end its spread.

The head of the United Nations health agency noted that modern technology and connectiveness gives COVID-19 a better chance of spreading.

"But at the same time," Tedros said, "we have also the technology to stop it and the knowledge to stop it. So we have a disadvantage of globalization, closeness, connectedness, but an advantage of better technology."

Similar, but different

The 1918 pandemic's second of three waves unleashed on the world was the most deadly. However, Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO's emergencies chief, said the century-old pandemic's patterns are unlike those of the COVID-19 pandemic, which does not appear to be shaped seasonally.

“This virus is not displaying a similar wave-like pattern,” he said of the outbreak that WHO labeled as a pandemic on March 11, the first time a coronavirus has gained that distinction.

More than 22.8 million people have confirmed infections and at least 796,000 have died, including 175,000 deaths in the United States and 112,000 in Brazil. More than 14.4 million people have recovered from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers.

Tedros emphasized, however, it not just the numbers of cases and deaths that matter. In many countries, he said, the number of patients who need hospitalization and advanced care remains high, which puts huge pressure on health systems and affects how services are provided for other health needs.

"Several countries around the world are now experiencing fresh outbreaks after a long period with little or no transmission. These countries are a cautionary tale for those that are now seeing a downward trend in cases," said Tedros.

"It's vital that countries are able to quickly identify and prevent clusters, to prevent community transmission and the possibility of new restrictions. No country can just ride this out until we have a vaccine," he said. "Even if we do have a vaccine, it won’t end the pandemic on its own. We must all learn to control and manage this virus using the tools we have now, and to make the adjustments to our daily lives that are needed to keep ourselves and each other safe."