GENEVA – The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said Monday that the agency’s “best estimates” indicate that about 1 in 10 people worldwide may have been infected with the coronavirus – more than 20 times the number of confirmed cases – and warned of a difficult time to come.
Dr Michael Ryan, speaking at a special session of WHO’s 34-member executive council focused on COVID-19, said the figures vary from urban to rural and between different groups, but that ultimately means “the overwhelming majority of the world remains at risk. “He said the pandemic will continue to evolve, but that tools exist to suppress transmission and save lives.
“Many deaths have been averted and many more lives can be protected,”
Ryan said Southeast Asia faced an increase in cases, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean saw an increase, while situations in Africa and the Western Pacific were “somewhat more positive.” Overall, however, he said the world “is heading for a difficult time”.
“The disease continues to spread. It is on the rise in many parts of the world,” Ryan told participants from the governments that make up the executive council and provide much of the WHO funding. “Our current best estimates tell us that around 10 percent of the world’s population may have been infected with this virus.”
The estimate – which would amount to more than 760 million people based on a current world population of around 7.6 billion – far exceeds the number of confirmed cases as calculated by both WHO and Johns Hopkins University, now more than 35 million worldwide. Experts have long been saying that the number of confirmed cases is significantly lower than the real figure.
Ryan didn’t come up with the estimate. Dr Margaret Harris, a WHO spokesperson, said it is based on an average of antibody studies conducted around the world. He said an estimated 90% of people who remain uninfected means the virus has “an opportunity” to spread further “if we don’t take action to stop it,” for example by tracing contacts and monitoring cases by health officials.
Tedros, during his remarks, said: “What we have learned in every region of the world is that with strong leadership, clear and comprehensive strategies, consistent communication and a committed, empowered and empowered population, it is never too late. .. Any situation can be changed and hard earned gains can easily be lost. “
“The pandemic underscores the crucial importance of investing in public health and primary health care,” said Tedros, wearing an elegant black, red and yellow mask. Tedros hadn’t worn a mask during dozens of COVID-19 press conferences he held at WHO headquarters this year.
The comments came during a special executive council session to consider the follow-up to its previous meeting, in May, which passed a resolution to examine the world’s – and the WHO – response to the pandemic, among other things.
The two-day meeting is the first of the executive council since the Trump administration started a one-year countdown this summer to withdraw the United States from WHO next July. President Donald Trump, who was himself infected with COVID-19, has repeatedly accused the WHO of over-accepting China’s explanations of its handling of the outbreak in Wuhan late last year.
In a much more conciliatory tone, Assistant Secretary of Health Brett Giroir, the United States representative on the board, told the videoconference meeting that the United States “looks forward to working together to defeat this pandemic and our people and our economy back to normal. “
Giroir also urged the WHO, albeit delicately, to clarify its relations with the Chinese government. He said a “key mandate” from the May resolution was his call for a joint mission involving WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to examine the animal origins of the virus and its transmission to humans.
An advanced team of two for that mission has visited China, but a more complete mission is not ready. Giroir said it is “critical” that WHO member states receive regular and timely updates on the mission and its “terms of reference” – an allusion to operational guidelines detailing how much access mission members will have in China.
Chinese council member Zhang Yang, speaking by videoconference, said China was “transparent and accountable” and fulfilled its responsibilities under the resolution. He said he had communicated regularly with WHO and kept his financial commitments with the UN agency.
Council member Clemens Auer of Austria complained about a “political weakening” of the WHO, citing the “potential withdrawal of a strong WHO member state” – an allusion to the United States. He called for a “retreat session” for council members, saying it should be an “active” body – not “ceremonial”. US representative Giroir expressed support for this idea.