Or­ga­ni­za­tion says la­bel could cause some to lose hope

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Maria Cheng

Want­ing to avoid alarm, the WHO re­sists de­scrib­ing the outbreak as a pan­demic.

LON­DON — As cases of the coro­n­avirus surge in Italy, Iran, South Korea, the U.S. and else­where, many sci­en­tists say it’s plain that the world is in the grips of a pan­demic — a se­ri­ous global outbreak.

But the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion has re­sisted de­scrib­ing the cri­sis as such, say­ing the word “pan­demic” might spook the world fur­ther and lead some coun­tries to lose hope of con­tain­ing the virus.

“Un­less we’re con­vinced it’s un­con­trol­lable, why (would) we call it a pan­demic?” WHO direc­tor­gen­eral Te­dros Ad­hanom Ghe­breye­sus said last week.

The U.N. health agency has pre­vi­ously de­scribed a pan­demic as a sit­u­a­tion in which a new virus is caus­ing “sus­tained com­mu­nitylevel out­breaks” in at least two world re­gions.

Many ex­perts say that thresh­old has long been met: The virus that was first iden­ti­fied in China is now spread­ing freely in four re­gions, it has reached ev­ery con­ti­nent but Antarc­tica, and its ad­vance seems un­avoid­able.

On Fri­day, the virus hit a new mile­stone, in­fect­ing more than 100,000 peo­ple world­wide, far more than those sick­ened by SARS, MERS or Ebola in re­cent years.

“I think it’s pretty clear we’re in a pan­demic, and I don’t know why WHO is re­sist­ing that,” said Michael Oster­holm, di­rec­tor of the Center for In­fec­tious Dis­ease Re­search and Pol­icy at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota.

Ex­perts ac­knowl­edge that declar­ing a pan­demic is po­lit­i­cally fraught be­cause it can rat­tle mar­kets, lead to more dras­tic travel and trade re­stric­tions and stig­ma­tize peo­ple com­ing from af­fected re­gions. WHO was pre­vi­ously crit­i­cized for la­bel­ing the 2009 swine flu outbreak a pan­demic.

But ex­perts said call­ing this cri­sis a pan­demic could also spur coun­tries to pre­pare for the virus’ even­tual ar­rival.

WHO al­ready de­clared the virus a “global health emer­gency’ in late Jan­uary, putting coun­tries and hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tions on no­tice and is­su­ing a broad set of rec­om­men­da­tions to curb its spread.

Even in coun­tries that moved quickly to shut down their links to China, COVID-19 has man­aged to sneak in. Within a mat­ter of weeks, of­fi­cials in Italy, Iran and South Korea went from re­port­ing sin­gle new cases to hun­dreds.

“We were the first coun­try to stop flights to China, and we were com­pletely sur­prised by this dis­ease,” said Mas­simo Galli, an in­fec­tious-dis­eases pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Milan. “It’s dan­ger­ous for the en­tire world that the virus is able to spread un­der­ground like this.”

With more than 3,800 cases, Italy is the epi­cen­ter of Europe’s outbreak and has shut down schools, closed sports sta­di­ums to fans and urged the el­derly not to go out­side un­less ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary.

On Satur­day, Italy’s gov­ern­ment took the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of lock­ing down much of the coun­try’s north, re­strict­ing move­ment for about a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try’s eco­nomic en­gine.

The move rep­re­sents the most sweep­ing ef­fort out­side China to stop the spread of the coro­n­avirus and is tan­ta­mount to sac­ri­fic­ing the Ital­ian econ­omy in the short term.

Italy has still man­aged to ex­port cases of the virus to at least 10 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Austria, the Czech Repub­lic, Spain, South Africa and Nige­ria.

Devi Srid­har, a pro­fes­sor of global pub­lic health at the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh who co-chaired a re­view of WHO’s re­sponse to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, said a pan­demic dec­la­ra­tion is long over­due.

“This outbreak meets all the def­i­ni­tions for a pan­demic that we had pre­co­ro­n­avirus,” she said.

At a news con­fer­ence last month, Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s emer­gen­cies chief, said a pan­demic is “a unique sit­u­a­tion in which we be­lieve that all cit­i­zens on the planet” will likely be ex­posed to a virus “within a de­fined pe­riod of time.”

Sev­eral ex­perts said they hadn’t heard that def­i­ni­tion.

The U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, for its part, de­fines a pan­demic as “an epi­demic that has spread over sev­eral coun­tries or con­ti­nents, usu­ally af­fect­ing a large num­ber of peo­ple.”

Mean­while, in China, a ho­tel used for med­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion of peo­ple who had con­tact with coro­n­avirus pa­tients col­lapsed Satur­day in Quanzhou, a city in Fu­jian

prov­ince, and some 20 peo­ple were still trapped that night, state me­dia re­ported.

There were no im­me­di­ate re­ports of deaths.

At least 48 peo­ple were res­cued from the wreck­age of the Xin­jia Ex­press Ho­tel, the Xin­hua News Agency, the Com­mu­nist Party news­pa­per Peo­ple’s Daily and other out­lets re­ported.

The 80-room ho­tel had been con­verted by the city gov­ern­ment for ob­ser­va­tion of peo­ple who had con­tact with virus pa­tients, ac­cord­ing to Peo­ple’s Daily.


A man is res­cued from a col­lapsed ho­tel Satur­day in Quanzhou in Fu­jian prov­ince, China.

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