World Health Organization chief 'deeply concerned' about COVID-19's 'rapid escalation', number of deaths

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) is "deeply concerned" about the rapid spread of COVID-19, with the world unsuccessful in stopping the deadly virus reaching some of the poorest nations.

The latest update from Johns Hopkins University reveals more than 905,000 people worldwide have been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. There have been roughly 45,000 deaths, but 185,000 people have recovered. It's likely that within the next two days, the world will reach 1 million confirmed cases.

More worrying, however, than the total number of cases, is the exponential speed in which the virus is spreading.

"As we enter the fourth month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am deeply concerned about the rapid escalation and global spread of infection," WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

"Over the past 5 weeks, we have witnessed a near exponential growth in the number of new COVID-19 cases, reaching almost every country, territory and area."

Dr Ghebreyesus explained that the number of deaths worldwide has doubled in the last week alone, while some of the globe's poorest nations are also now recording cases of the virus, such as within Africa and central America. 

He said COVID-19 could have "serious social, economic, and political consequences for these regions" and that it was critical these countries were equipped with tests. 

The United States - now with the most cases of any country - has just under 200,000 recorded COVID-19 patients, more than doubling in less than a week, while Italy and Spain have also recorded more than 100,000 instances of the virus. China, where the illness originated, has had just over 80,000 cases, but is being accused of purposely concealing the true scale of the outbreak there.

"Three months ago, we knew almost nothing about this coronavirus. Collectively, we have learned an enormous amount. And every day, we learn more. WHO is committed to serving all people everywhere with the best evidence to protect their health," Dr Ghebreyesus said.

In order to limit citizens' exposure to the spread of the virus, many countries, including New Zealand, Italy and the United Kingdom, have gone into a form of lockdown, with strict rules around gatherings and people leaving their homes. Restrictions have also been put into place to limit domestic travel, therefore potentially halting the virus' spread around a country.

Dr Ghebreyesus said this can help limit the virus' transmission, but can also have "unintended consequences" on the poorest and most vulnerable. He called on Governments to introduce social welfare measures to ensure vulnerable people continue to have access to essentials during the crisis.

The Director-General also told reporters that the WHO develops its guidance based on the "totality of evidence collected around the world", with staff talking to thousands of experts daily for the latest information.

New guidance was released on Thursday for improving access to hand-washing, which the WHO said can be a practical challenge for those lacking clean water. One of the suggestions is for countries to set up hand-washing stations outside public buildings, public transport and officers.

The organisation said medical masks are useful for people who are sick and those caring for people with illness, but should be combined with other protective measures. Frontline health workers should be prioritised when distributing personal protective gear, the WHO said. 

What we know about the coronavirus

The WHO was first notified of cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) in Wuhan, China on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread via human-to-human transmission. It causes the coronavirus COVID-19 illness.

The virus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs, however, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces isn't fully understood, but some studies have suggested that on some materials it could be for days.

"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.

"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."

There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
  • washing your hands before eating
  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • not eating shared or communal food
  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.