Dr Michael Ryan, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, was speaking in Geneva after confirmation that there are now 28,060 confirmed cases of infection in China and 564 deaths – with 225 cases in 24 other countries, where one death has been recorded, in the Philippines.
“Although we are pleased that the numbers from today are the first day in which the overall numbers of confirmed cases reported from China have dropped, and so we are thankful, and I’m sure our colleagues on the frontline in China are thankful too”, he said.
“But it is very difficult to make any prediction relating to that. We are still in the middle of an intense outbreak and we need to be very careful on making any predictions.”
Little still known about virus, says Tedros
Echoing caution about the respiratory disease (2019-nCoV) which was declared on 31 December in Wuhan city in central China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated that relatively little was known about the new virus, beyond the fact that it is most dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension.
People should continue to practise basic hygiene measures, he said, particularly washing their hands regularly and sneezing or coughing into the crook of their arm, if necessary.
“We don’t know the source of the outbreak, we don’t know what its natural reservoir is and we don’t properly understand transmissibility or severity. We need answers to all those”, he said.
No vaccination, no treatment so far
Although the genetic blueprint of the virus has been completed, there is no vaccination to prevent infection and no therapeutics to treat them, the WHO head told journalists.
“To put it bluntly, we are shadow boxing, we need to bring this virus out into the light so we can attack it properly”, Tedros maintained.
In a bid to understand more about the epidemic, the UN agency is convening a global research and innovation forum at its headquarters in the Swiss city on 11 and 12 February.
Experts are expected to attend virtually and in person from all over world, including from China, WHO confirmed.
Participants will discuss several areas of research, including identifying the source of the virus as well as sharing of biological samples and genetic sequences, the agency said in a statement.
“Understanding the disease, its reservoirs, transmission and clinical severity and then developing effective counter-measures is critical for the control of the outbreak, to reduce deaths and minimize the economic impact,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist.
This will also fast-track the development and evaluation of effective diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines, while establishing mechanisms for affordable access to vulnerable populations and facilitating community engagement.