WHO reconvenes COVID-19 panel; Africa's outbreaks intensify

COVID-19 relief efforts in South Africa
COVID-19 relief efforts in South Africa

GovernmentZA, GCIS / Flickr cc

The World Health Organization (WHO) director-general said today that the COVID-19 emergency committee will meet tomorrow to review pandemic developments, as cases surge in some African nations and as many past-peak countries take tentative steps to relax their distancing measures.

The global total today rose to 3,179,494 cases reported form 185 countries, and at least 226,173 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

WHO panel to examine latest developments

At a media briefing today, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said it's been nearly 3 months since the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern for the COVID-19 epidemic. Emergency committees typically meet every 3 months, or sooner, if needed.

Tedros said the group will review the pandemic's evolution and make any needed updates to the current recommendations. He reviewed the timeline of the WHO's actions, which began on Dec 31 when its epidemic intelligence system picked up a report of a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, which the next day triggered a request to China for more information and the activation of its incident management team to coordinate the response. On Jan 3, China provided more information to the WHO in a face-to-face meeting in Beijing, followed the next day by a WHO announcement about the case cluster on Twitter.

He said from the beginning, the WHO was quick and decisive in its response and warning to the world. "We sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often," Tedros said. "We said repeatedly that the world had a window of opportunity to prepare and to prevent widespread community transmission."

As the virus expanded its reach, the WHO has shared the grief and pain of people around the world, as well as the hope that the world will overcome the pandemic together, Tedros said.

As he listed the WHO's actions, ranging from issuing guidance, to distributing supplies, to training 2.3 million health workers, he said there's one thing the WHO hasn't done. "We haven’t given up. And we will not give up."

Africa sees case spike

Pandemic activity is evolving rapidly in Africa, with cases rising 42% over the past week and deaths increasing by 24%, the WHO's African regional office said today in its weekly outbreaks and health emergencies update.

Most countries are experiencing local spread, and three countries reported exponential increases last week, including Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Tanzania. So far only two of the region's 47 countries have reported no cases: Comoros and Lesotho.

Overall, 10 countries account for 84% of all cases; they include South Africa, Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Niger, Senegal, and Burkina Faso. So far in the region, 325 healthcare workers from 22 countries have been infected, with Niger reporting the most at 126.

Six countries have recorded very high case-fatality rates, ranging from 4.4% in Niger to 12.6% in Algeria. The others include Liberia (9.7%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (6.1%), Mali (6.6%), and Burkina Faso (6.6%).

UK expands testing; Germany's R0 creeps up

The United Kingdom has expanded its testing eligibility to symptomatic nursing home residents and staff, people older than 65, and those who can't work from home, the BBC reported today. The earlier testing indications were limited to essential works and hospital patients.

The new policy increases the number of people eligible to 25 million, and they can schedule tests through a government website. The government said its goal is to reach 100,000 tests a day by tomorrow.

In other UK developments, Public Health England announced today that starting today, it will include deaths in all settings in its COVID-19 data, including nursing homes and homes, as long as the patient's test was positive for COVID-19. Also, an official with the National Health Service told the BBC that the country's contact-tracing smartphone app—part of a strategy for easing the country's lockdown—will probably be ready to deploy in 2 to 3 weeks.

Elsewhere, Germany's reproduction number (R0, or R-naught) has risen slightly from 0.7 earlier this month to 1.0, according to officials at the Robert Koch Institute, CNBC reported yesterday.

The rise prompted concerns and a reminder for the public to stay home as much as possible, amid Germany's relaxation of lockdown measures.

At a media briefing, Lothar Wieler, DVM, PhD, said, "Let's ensure we can continue to defend this success we have achieved together. We don’t want the number of cases to rise again."

Puzzling global differences in cases and deaths

A review of WHO data reveals wide geographic differences in the COVID-19 prevalence and death rates, researchers from Johns Hopkins, Italy, and Saudi Arabia reported today in a letter to Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease.

They said differences in diagnostic efforts, case definition, and reporting don't seem to explain the variations. And though cooler and less humid conditions have been suggested as more conducive to COVID-19 spread, other factors such as greater commercial or tourist travel might play a role, they wrote.

For example, they noted that confirmed cases per million population varies widely, from 57 in China to 168 in Saudi Arabia to 2,732 in Italy.

They noted that mortality rates vary greatly and are highest in Italy (13.1%) and lowest in Bahrain and Singapore (0.3% to 0.4%).

Social habits, greater susceptibility, and superspreading events might play a role, as could response measures, the team wrote. For deaths, older age and lack of critical resources in overwhelmed health facilities may also be factors.

Without a single plausible explanation for the dramatic differences, home quarantine and isolation of vulnerable groups and strict measures implemented by many countries are justified to contain the pandemic, the authors concluded.

In other global COVID-19 developments:

  • Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today warned that the Tokyo Olympics might not take place next summer unless the COVID-19 pandemic is contained, Reuters His comments follow that of the head of a doctor's group who said a vaccine is needed for the Olympics to be held next year.

  • Russia's surge of cases continued today, with 5,841 more today, putting it just shy of 100,000 cases.

  • China today reported 22 new cases, following 2 days with cases in the single digits. The National Health Commission said 1 of the new cases is local, from Guangdong province, and the 21 others are imported.

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