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WHO raises COVID-19 risk to 'very high'

WHO raised its global risk assessment for the coronavirus to “very high” as some nations struggled with containment and economic fears lashed markets.

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization raised its global risk assessment for the new coronavirus to “very high” from “high” on Friday, as some countries struggled with containment and economic fears lashed global markets.

But officials from the U.N. health agency advised that the COVID-19 virus can still be contained if the chains of international transmission can quickly be broken. China, the hardest hit nation since the outbreak was first detected in Wuhan in December, has reported 78,959 cases, including 2,791 deaths.

Outside China, there were 4,351 cases in 49 countries, including 67 deaths, according to WHO officials. South Korea had reported 2,337 cases — the most outside of China. Many of the cases have been spreading from a few nations. Infected travelers from Italy exported 24 cases to 14 countries, the officials said, while people leaving Iran brought 97 cases to 11 other countries.

"The continued increase in the number of cases, and the number of affected countries over the last few days, are clearly of concern," WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a news media briefing.

"Our epidemiologists have been monitoring these developments continuously, and we have now increased our assessment of the risk of spread and the risk of impact of COVID-19 to very high at a global level," said Tedros, a politician and public health expert who has headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries.

"What we see at the moment are linked epidemics of COVID-19 in several countries, but most cases can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases," he said. "We do not see evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities. As long as that’s the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts."

Dr. Mike Ryan,  executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said the international organization was on the highest level of alert or risk assessment to contain the spread of the virus, a designation intended to prod nations to take quick action but was not meant to needlessly alarm people.

"This is a reality check for every government on the planet: Wake up. Get ready," he told the news media briefing. "This virus may be on its way and you need to be ready. You have a duty to your citizens, you have a duty to the world to be ready.”

Vaccines in the works

The elevated global risk assessment came as Germany quarantined about 1,000 people and said it would intensify health checks for people entering the country. Italy, at the epicenter of Europe's outbreak in Europe, said it expected to announce some emergency measures.

Switzerland's governing seven-member Federal Council announced a ban on public and private events of more than 1,000 people, leading to cancellation of major international gatherings such as the Geneva Motor Show and Baselworld watch fair.

In the United States, the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said school closings were likely to be announced. U.S. stocks took a beating and the price of crude oil fell below US$50 a barrel for the first time in more than a year.

However, there were some encouraging signs, Tedros said, noting that China had reported 329 cases — the nation's lowest such figure in more than a month — during the previous 24 hours. More than 20 vaccines were being developed worldwide, he said, with clinical trial results expected in a few weeks.

"But we don’t need to wait for vaccines and therapeutics. There are things every individual can do to protect themselves and others today," he said. "Your risk depends on where you live, your age and general health. WHO can provide general guidance. You should also follow your national guidance and consult local health professionals."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said earlier this month it believes the use of a drug might contain the virus sooner than a vaccine. A month ago, WHO said the coronavirus outbreak should be considered a global health emergency after the epidemic, first detected in China, had spread to 7,800 confirmed cases and 170 deaths worldwide.

Based on a meeting of its emergency committee for such outbreaks, WHO classified the new coronavirus outbreak as an “extraordinary event” that represents a risk to nations other than China and requires a coordinated global response. On February 11, WHO announced it had designated COVID-19 as the official name of the new coronavirus.