Vaccine still 18 months away

Top News | Mary Ann Benitez 13 Feb 2020

The director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says the Wuhan virus - officially Covid-19 - is "humanity's public enemy No 1," warning that it could have more powerful consequences than any terrorist attack if it is not stopped.

Tedros made the remarks as the WHO opened a two-day forum of 400 international scientists to come up with a research road map on a vaccine and treatment for the virus.

The first vaccine could be ready in 18 months, Tedros said, but individuals and governments have public health measures in hand - early detection, contact tracing, social distancing, personal and environmental hygiene - to control the epidemic.

Covid-19 has so far killed more than 1,100 people in China out of over 45,200 infected, and spread to 24 countries, with 408 cases and two deaths in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

"Outbreaks can bring serious upheavals and consequences to the world. It's not just a health security issue. It is a matter of social, political and economic upheavals," Tedros said.

He said countries should take the epidemic seriously and prepare for it to arrive on their shores.

"The world, when it talks about terrorism, the level of preparation is immense. To be honest, a virus is more powerful in creating political, economic and social upheaval than any terrorist attack," he said.

The WHO decided on the name after consulting with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health.

"We had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual, or group of people," Tedros said.

He said the coronavirus "has more potency and virulence" than the Ebola virus, which he said was "lousy."

Sylvie Briand, director of WHO global infectious hazard preparedness, said Covid-19, which emerged in December at a Wuhan market, is "very similar to other coronavirus found in bats" based on genomic sequencing.

"But when Chinese researchers did some sampling in the Wuhan seafood market, they did not find so many bats.

"It's very likely there has been some intermediate host that has been the amplifier in Wuhan," she said, adding studies are still ongoing.

An advance team of experts led by Bruce Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist and emergencies expert who led the WHO's 2014 response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, is in Beijing to help investigate the epidemic.

Meanwhile, Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the acting WHO representative to the Philippines, said the WHO did not issue travel restrictions because "we have observed in previous outbreaks that travel restrictions cause more social and economic disruption and are less effective as a means of controlling outbreaks."

The WHO last week briefed its network of country representatives and UN resident coordinators on the outbreak and informed them about the steps they can take.

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