COVID-19: Preparedness for a potential pandemic
by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan
February 25, 2020 – As of today, over 80 thousand patients from 29 countries have been diagnosed with COVID-19 – short for the coronavirus disease that emerged in December 2019. Compared to the figures reported a month ago, these numbers represent over a hundred-fold increase in patients and more than a three-fold increase in affected countries. And over 2,700 patients have lost their lives since the disease began in early December 2019.
The last two weeks for this reporting period have brought forth two competing messages – guarded optimism during the early part versus the likelihood of a full-blown pandemic during the latter half. During the early part, China’s Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reported on their “descriptive exploratory analysis” of 72,314 patients. Most (81 per cent) were mild. The authors of the report did acknowledge limitations to their study, for example, about 10,000 did not have laboratory-confirmed tests for the virus. They observed that the epidemic appeared to be in decline, leading to the end of their data collection. Indeed, daily tracking of reports from the CDC-USA, the CDC-China and the World Health Organization (WHO) showed a continuing decline of new patients and a rise in the number of recovery. Even then, they added the cautionary note that “with many people returning from a long holiday, China needs to prepare for the possible rebound of the epidemic.” The global public, I thought, could justifiably see optimism on the horizon.
Then came the Diamond Princess cruise ship event that showed a rapid increase of infections, followed by the surge of new patients in South Korea, Italy and Iran, accompanied by a significant number of deaths. It appears the epidemic has now progressed to the Middle East and Europe. There are now over 2,000 patients outside China. In light of these latter observations, the natural question that has visited the minds of the mainstream media and public health experts is: Has COVID-19 now become a full blown pandemic?
The WHO’s position
At his media briefing on February 24, 2020 from Geneva, the WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros, had this to say in response to the question: “Our decision about whether to use the word “pandemic” to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society. 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. Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet. So how should we describe the current situation? What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world, affecting countries in different ways and requiring a tailored response. The sudden increase in new cases is certainly very concerning…Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.”
Is Canada prepared for a pandemic?
Speaking of Canada’s preparedness for a possible pandemic, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, said yesterday as quoted in CBC News:
“These signs are concerning and they mean that the window of opportunity for containment, for stopping the global spread of the virus, is closing. It also tells countries like Canada, that have been able to manage and detect cases so far, that we have to prepare across governments, across communities, and as families and individuals, in the event of more widespread transmission in our community. As the window closes in terms of stopping the global spread, as we watch the WHO assess whether or not this is a full pandemic, obviously our attention turns more toward our domestic preparedness and what Canada can do to make sure our system and structures are ready for a change in our own population.
“Canada developed a pandemic response plan in 2009, which would serve as the foundation for any shift in the official response to the current outbreak. The response plan includes accelerating research work here and contributing to international efforts to develop a vaccine abroad. It also could lead to expanding laboratory testing capabilities and access to diagnostic tools, and taking stock of essential supplies to make sure authorities don’t run short; that Canada’s course of action would be much the same whether the WHO declares a pandemic or not.”
WHO Representative Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe (left) and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III (right) during the handover of personal protective equipment for the use of health workers. (Photo: WHO/F. Tanggol)
Canada’s state of preparedness and response are re-assuring, indeed!
Philippine government receives WHO support
As part of its support for countries world wide to contain the spread and build preparedness for a possible COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO has provided stocks of personal protective equipment to the Philippine government for use by frontline health workers. Along with examination gloves, respirators, isolation gowns, face masks, reagents and chemicals were delivered to the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine to enable it to perform diagnostic testing in the country instead of sending specimens to Australia. This will reduce produce test results within two days. The WHO also shared technical expertise on surveillance and country preparedness, and provided support to the leadership of the Health Department on messaging of risks and engaging the public about the outbreak.
Hon. Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, P.C, O.M., LL.D., Sc.D., M.D., M.Sc., is a retired lung specialist and professor of pediatrics and child health from the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine. As Canada’s former Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development, he made a presentation on “The Global Threat of Infectious Diseases” at the G-8 Countries’ Science Ministers and Advisors Group Meeting held on June 13-15, 2003 in Berlin, Germany. email@example.com
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