Put Lives over Politics – WHO Must Declare Coronavirus a Pandemic

Picture: Xiao Yijiu/AP

AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) urgently calls on United Nations Secretary General António Guterres to convene an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in response to the escalating spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) across 41 countries and territories.

Concurrently, the World Health Organization (WHO) must declare the ongoing outbreak a pandemic as COVID-19 poses an imminent danger to global public health and is likely to continue spreading across the world.

“The UN Security Council must bring to bear its resources and political weight to mount a response commensurate with the unprecedented scale of danger facing global public health security and the global economy,” said Michael Weinstein, AHF President. “Many countries are entirely unprepared in terms of healthcare capacity, infrastructure, and supplies to fight a highly contagious and potentially protracted outbreak – and as a UN body charged with protecting global peace and security, it is time for the UNSC to step in.”

According to the latest epidemiological data on Feb. 25, the total number of COVID-19 cases has reached 80,407 globally, and 2,708 people have died from the virus, which puts the mortality rate at nearly 3.4%. With recent localized flare ups in Italy (322 cases), Iran (95 cases), and South Korea (977 cases), the total number of affected countries or territories has reached 41.

Despite COVID-19 spreading to five continents, WHO still hasn’t declared the outbreak a pandemic. In a press briefing on Monday, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told media the virus has the potential to become a pandemic but hasn’t reached that level yet. “For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death,” the Director-General said in the briefing.

In contrast to Dr. Tedros’ view of the situation, WHO’s guidance document titled “Current WHO phase of pandemic alert for Pandemic (H1N1) 2009,” states Phase 6 is defined as a pandemic if it includes human-to-human spread and community-level outbreaks in at least two different WHO regions. While the guidance was specifically tailored to the H1N1 2009 outbreak, the spread of COVID-19 has already far exceeded those comparatively low threshold requirements.

“If we look at what is happening in South Korea, Italy, and Iran, the requirements are met for WHO to declare Phase 6 of a pandemic—it is no longer contained and controlled within the borders of China,” said Dr. Jorge Saavedra, Executive Director of the AHF Global Public Health Institute at the University of Miami. “The hesitation to declare a pandemic is motivated by political reasons and concerns for impact on the Chinese economy, which is a very dangerous course of action. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from pandemics, it’s that when global public health takes a backseat to politics, things end tragically and with many preventable deaths.”

In reference to Iran’s exceedingly high COVID-19 mortality rate of nearly 20% (95 cases, 16 deaths), Dr. Saavedra said the UNSC should consider softening the sanctions so that the country can obtain enough resources to freely and urgently import public health goods to contain the outbreak. “In times of public health emergencies and when the world is on the verge of a pandemic – ideology, geopolitics, and battles for patents and profits need to be set aside for the benefit of humanity,” he said.