GENEVA, Switzerland — The World Health Organization (WHO) on Saturday warned the coronavirus pandemic was likely to be “lengthy” after its emergency committee met to evaluate the crisis six months after sounding the international alarm.
The committee “highlighted the anticipated lengthy duration of this COVID-19 pandemic,” the WHO said in a statement, and warned of the risk of “response fatigue” given the socio-economic pressures on countries.
The panel gathered Friday for the fourth time over the coronavirus crisis, half a year on from its January 30 declaration of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) – the WHO’s highest level of alarm.
“WHO continues to assess the global risk level of COVID-19 to be very high,” it said in its latest statement.
“The committee highlighted the anticipated lengthy duration of this COVID-19 pandemic, noting the importance of sustained community, national, regional, and global response efforts.”
The novel coronavirus has killed at least 680,000 people and infected at least 17.6 million since the outbreak emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.
Unsurprisingly, the panel, comprising 18 members and 12 advisers, unanimously agreed that the pandemic still constituted a PHEIC.
Crisis fatigue warning
Several countries around the world have imposed strict lockdowns in a bid to control the spread of the respiratory disease, plunging economies into sharp contraction.
The committee urged the WHO to provide nuanced, pragmatic guidance on COVID-19 reactions “to reduce the risk of response fatigue in the context of socio-economic pressures.”
The panel urged the WHO to support countries in preparing for the rollout of proven therapeutics and vaccines.
The committee also urged the agency to accelerate research into the remaining “critical unknowns” of the virus, such as the animal source and potential animal reservoirs.
It called for improved understanding of the epidemiology and severity of COVID-19, including its long-term health effects.
And the committee wanted more light shed on the dynamics of the virus, such as “modes of transmission, shedding, potential mutations; immunity and correlates of protection.”
The near six-hour gathering was hosted at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, with some participants joining via video-link.
The committee will reconvene in three months’ time.
Effects ‘felt for decades’
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the pandemic’s effects would be long-lasting.
“It’s sobering to think that six months ago, when you recommended I declare a PHEIC, there were less than 100 cases and no deaths outside China,” he said Friday.
“The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come.”
“Many scientific questions have been resolved; many remain to be answered,” Tedros said Friday.
“Most of the world’s people remain susceptible to this virus, even in areas that have experienced severe outbreaks.”
South Africa is by far the hardest hit country in Africa, accounting for more than half of diagnosed infections, although President Cyril Ramaphosa said the fatality rate is lower than the global average.
Health authorities had been expecting a surge in cases after the gradual loosening of a strict lockdown that was imposed at the end of March.
Nigeria on Saturday also announced it would ease a lockdown in the commercial capital Lagos, allowing churches and mosques to reopen next week.
Mexico overtook Britain to become the third hardest hit country in virus deaths – after Brazil and the United States – with more than 46,600 fatal cases.
Although many Latin American countries have begun relaxing stay-at-home measures, the virus is still spreading quickly across much of the region, which has now recorded more than four million cases and almost 200,000 deaths.
Half of them are in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro said he believes “nearly everyone” will catch the virus eventually, after himself recovering from it.
61,262 COVID-19 cases in 24 hours
The United States counted 61,262 new coronavirus cases in the 24 hours leading up to 8:30 p.m. Saturday (0030 GMT Sunday), according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
It was the fifth consecutive day with more than 60,000 infections recorded, according to the Baltimore-based university. There were also 1,051 deaths in the 24-hour period.
The US has now tallied more than 4.6 million cases and 154,319 deaths, making it the hardest-hit country in the world.
The outlook was bleak in Asia as well, where India and the Philippines reported record increases in new daily infections.
“We are waging a losing battle against COVID-19, and we need to draw up a consolidated, definitive plan of action,” said an open letter signed by 80 Filipino medical associations.
Japan’s Okinawa declared a state of emergency after a record jump in cases on the islands — many linked to US military forces stationed there.
The pandemic has spurred a race for a vaccine with several Chinese companies at the forefront, while Russia has set a target date of September to roll out its own medicine.
However, US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said it was unlikely his country would use any vaccine developed in either nation.
“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone,” he said.
As part of its “Operation Warp Speed”, the US government will pay pharmaceutical giants Sanofi and GSK up to $2.1 billion for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, the companies said.