Ideas
February 4, 2020 11:00 AM EST
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Once in a very rare while, a single, serious challenge consumes the attention of the entire world.

We are living through one such period today as countries and communities come together to end the new coronavirus outbreak.

This virus, provisionally known as the “2019-novel coronavirus,” has, as of 3 February 2020, spread to 24 countries, with over 17,000 people being infected to date, 99% of them in China.

The limited numbers of cases elsewhere around the world – just 153 so far – show that efforts to contain the virus in China are curbing its global spread, alongside the detection and clinical care measures that have been rapidly put into motion in other countries.

I understand the worry many people around the world feel today. We have been introduced to a new virus that is causing a wide range of symptoms in those infected. One in five of all infected people are suffering severe reactions, including pneumonia and respiratory failure. Fortunately, for most people the effects have been mild.

When a new virus emerges, there are always many uncertainties about how it spreads, the disease it causes and the impact it will have.

The World Health Organization is working around the clock with affected countries and a global network of partners to address these unknowns.

We are gathering knowledge daily from China and other countries with confirmed cases. We know that the incubation period of the virus is 1-14 days, based on current information, and that underlying conditions such as diabetes and hypertension make people who have contracted the new coronavirus more susceptible to severe disease. New information is also helping us understand which treatments could be beneficial to infected patients and how best to protect health care workers and those at risk of infection.

We are also working to counter the large amounts of misinformation and rumor rapidly spreading via social media channels.

But this unprecedented outbreak can be defeated if we act now. To do so will require an unprecedented response, driven by global solidarity and collaboration and built on evidence-based action.

WHO is working with all countries, and many health partners, to lead this effort. We are focusing our energies on three fronts: at its epicenter in China; in other affected countries to prevent human-to-human transmission; and in fragile states with weak health systems to prepare them to cope effectively if and when the disease reaches them.

Targeting the epicentre

China, its people and economy, are bearing the brunt of the new coronavirus. But the country is targeting the hot spots to fight it domestically and to limit its external spread. We will help China to sustain and step up these efforts.

Tens of thousands of health workers have been working day and night across China, providing care in the most trying of times.

They are striving to save lives, reduce disease spread and give the rest of the world the precious time needed to prepare and respond. Chinese scientists isolated the virus and shared its genome sequencing with WHO and researchers worldwide, which quickened research and development for a possible vaccine.

At China’s invitation, WHO will deploy a mission composed of multidisciplinary experts under the framework of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network to work side-by-side with a group of Chinese experts.

President Xi Jinping, with whom I met with in Beijing on 28 January, has personally taken charge of the outbreak response in China.

Preventing onward spread

While this new health emergency bears the hallmarks of past outbreaks, the truth is the world today is a very different place than it was during 2002 and 2003, when countries were gripped by the outbreak of SARS.

The rapid and robust responses launched by many governments have played a key part in the relatively low number of people contracting the virus outside of China.

All nations have been developing epidemic and pandemic influenza plans, geared towards the emergence of a novel respiratory pathogen. This preparedness is paying off.

This has helped ensure to date that there has been only a limited number of human-to-human transmissions of the new coronavirus in six countries outside China – France, Japan, Germany, Thailand, Viet Nam and the United States.

WHO is in constant contact with governments, health partners and an array of public and private sector organizations who can play a role in containing the outbreak. The open exchange of information between WHO, China and other countries is helping prime health systems with their immediate response.

We are working with global supply and logistics firms to prioritize supplies to those in most need, including personal protective equipment, diagnostics and essential medicines for first line responders and patients.

Tech giants including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tencent and TikTok are also joining in to help share accurate advice and defeat potentially dangerous misinformation.

And WHO has mobilized a network of partners, through the R&D Blueprint for Epidemics, to identify, prioritize and accelerate the development of diagnostics, vaccines and therapies needed to combat the virus in the long term.

The work of developing diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines did not start in December 2019 when this latest coronavirus outbreak was first reported. It began years ago with the development of therapeutics and vaccines for another coronavirus, the Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Combined with the genome sequencing of the virus we are battling today, these past efforts have put the world on a fast track to developing the tools needed to counter this new threat.

While protecting people from exposure to the current outbreak is a priority, the world will also need, in the longer term, to develop new treatments to save more lives and vaccines to protect populations at large.

From Singapore, where authorities are urging citizens not to spread rumors, to San Diego where surveillance systems are working well to detect suspect cases, authorities are prepared and governments have responded quickly and decisively to the outbreak. The United Kingdom government’s sentiment says it all: “we can all play our part.”

Protecting fragile settings

Emergency preparedness is central to WHO’s mission, as well as building up health system capacities in all countries, particularly in settings with large numbers of vulnerable people. While the coronavirus has the potential to threaten all countries, more developed nations are better prepared to contain the virus if and when it surfaces.

Fragile states and settings don’t share the same health security. It is such settings that are most susceptible to the introduction of the 2019-novel coronavirus.

What this outbreak makes clear is that no longer can we allow hospitals, disease surveillance networks and health workforces in vulnerable countries to be ill-equipped to cope with health emergencies. Most lack the most basic needs to detect and prevent novel pathogens, such as surveillance systems, diagnostic capacities and infection, prevention and control. We do so at our collective peril.

We, as a global community, are at our best when we face adversity and uncertainly together, looking to protect those who are most vulnerable as our top priority. We all have vulnerable populations, some more than others, and we must protect them.

It was because of the outbreak’s potential to spread to fragile settings that on 30 January I declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

My decision was based on recommendations from the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which convened to consider the outbreak’s latest data and trends.

Based on this advice, I called for action on seven key areas.

These included to not restrict travel or trade based on current information; increase international support for fragile settings; accelerate development of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics; intensify action to combat rumors and misinformation; review and strengthen national health emergency preparedness plans to counter the outbreak; share data, knowledge and experience with WHO and the world; and base efforts to defeat the outbreak on a spirt of solidarity and collaboration.

I appreciate global anxieties and concerns are understandably high.

People want to know if they will be safe, if the outbreak can be contained, and WHO and the international community can deliver the responses needed.

To succeed, global solidarity and commitment to collaborate for the protection everyone’s health will be essential.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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