WHO issues a rare public scolding, saying countries wasting time, should maintain lockdowns despite cost

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(BLOOMBERG) – Governments should stop wasting precious time needed to fight the coronavirus after squandering an opportunity to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization’s head said.

“We squandered the first window of opportunity,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The time to act was actually more than a month ago or two months ago.”

The WHO chief gave a rare, blunt admonishment yesterday on the world’s progress against the disease, which has killed almost 20,000 people and is present in almost every country. The agency generally avoids public criticism of its member states, Mike Ryan, the head of its emergencies program, has said.

WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The world has a second chance, as 150 countries have fewer than 100 reported cases and still have time to prepare, Tedros said. Those that have ordered lockdowns have won themselves time to implement aggressive measures to stamp out the disease. How long lockdowns must last depends on what actions countries take during them to ensure the disease is eradicated, Tedros said.

While such strict regimes impose harsh social and economic costs, “the last thing any country needs is to reopen schools and businesses only to close them again because of a resurgence in cases.” Tedros said.

He gave a list of six actions every country should take:

• Expand, train and deploy health-care workers
• Implement systems to find suspected cases
• Ramp up production of tests and increase availability
• Identify facilities that can be transformed into coronavirus health centers
• Develop plans to quarantine cases
• Refocus government on suppressing the virus

“The world is not ready for a pandemic,” Ryan said. For example, breaks in the supply chain could threaten supplies of medical gloves, which are made from rubber that’s sourced from only a few countries.

Health-care workers are facing shortages of protective gear across the world, said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the WHO. People who aren’t sick don’t need masks, she has said, and doctors shouldn’t be deprived of them because of the way a country uses them.

“This is not acceptable,” she said. “Protecting our health-care workers must be the top priority.”

“If there’s any lesson from this pandemic, it’s that we need stronger public health systems,” on a national and global level, Ryan said.

Dutch scientists were able to find the coronavirus in a city’s wastewater before Covid-19 cases were reported, demonstrating a novel early warning system for the pneumonia-causing disease.

The so-called SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is often excreted in an infected person’s stool. Although it’s unlikely that sewage will become an important route of transmission, the pathogen’s increasing circulation in communities will increase the amount of it flowing into sewer systems, Gertjan Medema and colleagues at the KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein said on Monday.

They detected genetic material from the coronavirus at a wastewater treatment plant in Amersfoort on March 5, before any cases had been reported in the city, located about 50 kilometers (32 miles) southeast of Amsterdam. The Netherlands confirmed its first Covid-19 case on Feb. 27 and discovered health workers had fallen ill with the infection in a southern part of the country days later — a sign that it was spreading in the community.

Coronavirus Lurking in Feces May Reveal Hidden Risk of Spread

“It is important to collect information about the occurrence and fate of this new virus in sewage to understand if there is no risk to sewage workers, but also to determine if sewage surveillance could be used to monitor the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in our communities,” Medema, the institute’s principal microbiologist, and co-authors said in a paper released ahead of peer review. “That could complement current clinical surveillance, which is limited to the Covid-19 patients with the most severe symptoms.”It’s the first report of detection of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage, they said.

Wastewater surveillance is a well established method of detecting poliovirus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as the use of illicit and prescription medications.

Sewage surveillance could also serve as early warning of the emergence and re-emergence of Covid-19 in cities, the Dutch scientists said.

“The detection of the virus in sewage, even when the Covid-19 prevalence is low, indicates that sewage surveillance could be a sensitive tool to monitor the circulation of the virus in the population,” they said.

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