Geneva: The novel coronavirus is 10 times more deadly than swine flu, which caused a global pandemic in 2009, the World Health Organisation said on Monday, stressing a vaccine would be necessary to fully halt transmission.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual briefing from Geneva that the organisation was constantly learning about the new virus sweeping the globe, which has now killed nearly 115,000 people and infected over 1.8 million.
"We know that COVID-19 spreads fast, and we know that it is deadly, 10 times deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic," he said.
WHO says 18,500 people died of "swine flu", or H1N1, which was first uncovered in Mexico and the United States in March 2009, but the Lancet medical estimated the toll to be between 151,700 and 575,400. The Lancet review included estimated deaths in Africa and Southeast Asia that were not accounted for by the WHO.
The outbreak, which was declared a pandemic in June 2009 and considered over by August 2010, turned out to be not as deadly as first feared.
Vaccines were rushed out, but in hindsight, the West, particularly Europe, and the WHO were criticised for overreacting at a time when annual influenza epidemics every year killed between 250,000 and 500,000 people, according to WHO.
Tedros lamented Monday that some countries are seeing a doubling of cases every three to four days, but stressed that if countries were committed to "early case-finding, testing, isolating (and) caring for every case and tracing every contact" they could rein in the virus. More than half of the planet’s population is currently staying home as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus, but Tedros warned that "our global connectedness means the risk of re-introduction and resurgence of the disease will continue".
He pointed out that while COVID-19 had accelerated quickly, "it decelerates much more slowly." "In other words, the way down is much slower than the way up," he said, stressing that "control measures must be lifted slowly, and with control. It cannot happen all at once."
"Control measures can only be lifted if the right public health measures are in place, including significant capacity for contact tracing," he said. Regardless of the efforts put in place, the WHO acknowledged that "ultimately, the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine will be needed to fully interrupt transmission".
A vaccine is thought to be at least 12 to 18 months away.Meanwhile, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared on Monday that the "worst is over" in the state’s coronavirus pandemic, as he reported that the death toll there had passed 10,000.
Cuomo said lower average hospitalization rates and intubations suggested a "plateauing" of the epidemic and that he was working on a plan to gradually reopen the economy. "I believe we can now start on the path to normalcy," Cuomo told reporters.
The governor announced that 671 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of deaths in America’s hardest-hit state to 10,056. It was the lowest single-day toll in New York since April 5. The highest of 799 was reported on Thursday of last week.
"The worst is over if we continue to be smart going forward," said Cuomo, adding that he would speak to neighboring governors later on Monday to come up with a reopening plan. He said a reopening would be gradual, could start with recalibrating who is an essential worker and would require an increase in testing to monitor infection rates.
"It’s not going to be, we flip the switch, and everybody comes out of their house, gets in their car, waves and hugs each other, and the economy will start, Cuomo said. "Do it carefully, do it slowly and do it intelligently," he added.
Cuomo encouraged New Yorkers to continue to follow social distancing guidelines, saying "two or three days of reckless behavior" could set the fight against the pandemic back. New York state quickly became the epicenter of the United States’ outbreak and accounts for almost half of the country’s 22,150 deaths, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University.
In a related development, Germany is moving towards a progressive lifting of restrictions linked to the coronavirus outbreak as new infections fall and the number of deaths remains far below its European neighbours.
The nation’s Academy of Sciences Leopoldina recommended on Monday a gradual relaxing of restrictions in stages if new infections stabilise at a low level and personal hygiene measures to avoid spread of the coronavirus are maintained.
The Academy’s findings are to form the basis for a decision on Wednesday by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of Germany’s 16 regions about whether to extend restrictions imposed in mid-March that are set to expire on Sunday.
The latest figures by the Robert Koch public health institute indicate new infections are indeed slowing, dropping to 2,537 on Monday, taking the total to 123,016.
With 2,799 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, Germany is far behind other big European nations. Over the weekend, Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn had already cued up a phased easing of restrictions that may vary by region.
He did not specify which sectors in Europe’s largest economy could first see loosened restrictions. For its part, the Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, recommended reopening schools as soon as possible, starting with primary and middle schools, although most child care facilities should remain closed. The academy includes social scientists as well as medical researchers among its team of experts.
It recommended reopening shops and restaurants as long as social distancing measures are rigorously respected, and for government offices to get back to work. The head of the Academy, Gerald Haug, said these measures could only go forward accompanied by an obligation to wear a face mask while riding in public transport to prevent a resurgence of infections.
"Every citizen should in the future have this type of protection for their mouth and nose and wear it each time social distancing measures can’t be respected," he told the weekly Der Spiegel.
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