Coronavirus: WHO Director-General Dr Ghebreyesus says threat of pandemic is 'very real', but 'controllable'

The fast-moving outbreak of the novel coronavirus surpassed 100,000 reported cases across 100 countries in the weekend - a statistic indicating that "the threat of a pandemic has become very real," according to World Health Organisation (WHO) officials.

The COVID-19 virus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year and has killed roughly 3380 people as of March 6.

During a media briefing on Monday, WHO's Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it's "troubling" that COVID-19 has "a foothold" in so many countries - but confirmed the impending pandemic is controllable.

"It would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled. The bottom line is: we are not at the mercy of this virus," Dr Ghebreyesus said.

He reiterated that the trajectory of the virus can be influenced by the decisions we make as individuals, families, communities, businesses and in government. 

Dr Ghebreyesus also acknowledged positive indicators, including the more than 70 percent recovery rate among China's 80,000 reported cases.

"Of all the cases reported globally so far, 93 percent are from just four countries [China, Iran, Italy and Republic of Korea]... this is an uneven epidemic at the global level."

Dr Ghebreyesus reiterated that all countries must implement a comprehensive, blended strategy to prevent infection.

For countries with no cases, sporadic cases and clusters of cases, it's imperative to continue finding, testing, treating and isolating individual cases and tracing their contacts.

Countries grappling with community transmission are advised to consider closing schools, cancelling crowded events and reducing other means of mass exposure.

Elements of an effective COVID-19 response

  • emergency response mechanisms
  • risk communications and public engagement
  • case finding and contact tracing
  • public health measures such as hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and social distancing
  • laboratory testing
  • treating patients and hospital readiness
  • infection prevention and control
  • an all-of-society, all-of-government approach.

WHO has shipped supplies of personal, protective equipment to 57 countries and are preparing to shop to an additional 28. Laboratory supplies have been shipped to 120 countries to help combat the outbreak.

To see how New Zealand can prevent and manage a possible pandemic, read here.