The global health agency did not stress a need for people to wear masks at the outset of the pandemic, but has slowly shifted its position.
(CN) — Warning there isn’t a magical solution to end the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization threw its support behind the wearing of masks on Monday and said badly hit countries like the United States should not give up hope of controlling the virus.
Comparing the novel coronavirus to the 1918 influenza pandemic, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said during a news briefing the world cannot count on vaccines to end the pandemic and nations need to take a comprehensive approach to bringing the disease under control.
“We all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection, however there is no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be,” Tedros said.
“The world has never seen anything like this for several decades, since actually the 1918” pandemic, Tedros said. He said the coronavirus pandemic’s effects may last for decades because of the toll it is having on economies.
“It has touched almost everything,” he said. “It will be felt for decades to come because one of its impacts is on the economy.”
Still, he expressed optimism that the world can end the pandemic through a comprehensive strategy of hygiene, mask wearing, testing, therapeutic treatments physical distancing and restrictions on crowds.
“Since the outbreak started, many countries have shown that it can be controlled or serious transmission can be suppressed,” he said.
He added hope is warranted because work to develop vaccines has moved at unprecedented speed. A few vaccines are at advanced clinical stages and being tested on large groups of people.
“There is hope there,” Tedros said. “It doesn’t mean we will have the vaccine, but at least the speed at which we reached the level we reached now is unprecedented.”
The virus continues to spread at an accelerating pace around the world and it is circulating at a high rate in many of the world’s most populous countries, including the United States, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa. In the past three months, the number of infections has risen five-fold and deaths have tripled, Tedros said.
The number of confirmed infections globally stands at more than 18.3 million and deaths linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are nearing 700,000. However, the death toll is believed to be much higher because many fatalities are not listed as caused by the virus and some countries may be underreporting. For example, the BBC on Monday reported that leaked official documents from Iran show the country’s death count stood at nearly 42,000 by July 20, far higher than the official toll of 14,405.
On Monday, the WHO said about 0.6% of people who are infected die from Covid-19.
“That may not sound like a lot, but it is quite high if you think about a virus that can transmit readily, that can transmit well and infect,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for the pandemic. “There’s a long way to go with this pandemic.”
The fatality rate is much higher for older people and those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity and heart problems, she said.
Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, said the fatality rate equates to one out of every 200 people dying. By comparison, the fatality rate for the 2009 swine flu pandemic was between one death per 10,000 and one death per 100,000, he said.
He added that researchers are uncertain about the long-term health effects for people who are infected, making it all that more important to avoid infection.
“Everything we do to reduce our exposure or exposing others will add benefit to this,” he said. “You can choose, we have choices.”
Notably, the WHO also used Monday’s briefing to tout the benefits of masks. At the pandemic’s outset, the United Nations global health agency did not stress a need for the general population to wear masks, a position that prompted many health experts to criticize the agency’s stance. Many nations ignored the WHO’s recommendations on masks and imposed mask mandates. In recent months, the WHO has slowly shifted its position and on Monday embraced mask wearing.
“As well as hand sanitizer, I carry a mask with me all the time and use it when I am in places where there are crowds,” Tedros said. “By wearing a mask you’re sending a powerful message to those around you that we are all in this together.”
In several countries, including the U.S. and the United Kingdom, mask wearing mandates have sparked outrage and protests. On Saturday, an estimated 17,000 people in Berlin rallied against mask mandates and other restrictions at a moment when Germany is seeing its infection rate climb and top officials warn of a second wave. Germany has been viewed as a major success in hard-hit Europe for limiting infections and deaths.
German media reported that protesters chanted that the pandemic was a conspiracy theory and sang “We are the second wave” as they gathered in front of the Brandenburg Gate.
The crowds were reportedly diverse but also included far-right and far-left groups. The protests turned violent as police dispersed the growing crowds and about 45 officers were injured, three seriously, according to Deutsche Welle, the German news broadcaster. More than 130 protesters were arrested.
“I just came from abroad and see these pictures. Many look to Germany, and admire us for how we have dealt with corona. Such pictures are a disaster,” said Sawsan Chebli, a senior official in the Berlin city government, on Twitter. “They destroy everything. They endanger human lives and destroy livelihoods. They scare me.”
Saskia Esken, a leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party, which is in a ruling coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel, called the protesters “covidiots.”
“Thousands of covidiots celebrate themselves in Berlin as the ‘second wave’ with no distancing, no masks,” she said, according to Deutsche Welle. “They are not only jeopardizing our health, they are jeopardizing our achievements against the pandemic and the revival of the economy, education, and society.”
Europe was the first region outside of China to be hit hard by the virus and it took months for the continent to largely contain the virus through the shutdown of societies and strict containment measures. But fears are growing that the virus is getting out of control again in Europe after lockdowns were lifted and people socialize and travel.
But the worst of the pandemic is now being suffered in many of the world’s largest countries outside of Europe.
India, with its 1.3 billion people, has become an epicenter with more than 50,000 new infections reported daily and more than 38,500 deaths. In the past week, the number of infections has increased by 35% in India and deaths by 25%, the WHO said.
“Clearly India is facing a challenge with the disease, but it is focused in particular areas,” Ryan said. “Our concern at the moment is that the disease is moving into more rural areas that don’t necessarily have the same strength in their health system; that we would see increased spread and potentially increased mortality.”
Ryan said India is conducting widespread testing and hopes to ramp up its testing capacity even more. It is doing on average a half million tests each day and it hopes to increase that to 1 million, he said. He said it has tested 20 million people.
Indian researchers also have found that about 40% of people in the large cities of Mumbai and Delhi may have become infected with the virus. These studies are important to determine how many more people in a population may be susceptible to getting infected and whether a population is nearing what is known as “herd immunity,” a point where so many people have built up antibodies to a virus that it cannot be transmitted effectively.
Van Kerkhove said the WHO was looking into the studies to determine how accurate they are. Overall, though, she said similar studies around the world are finding that less than 10% of any given population has been infected with the virus.
The WHO noted that the pandemic continues to rage in the United States too.
On Sunday, Deborah Birx, a top member of the White House coronavirus task force, warned the pandemic was entering a new phase in the U.S. with infections “extraordinarily widespread” across the country.
Ryan said he saw Birx’s statement as a reminder to every U.S. state that “the disease never went away and that there is a huge potential for the disease to increase its speed and accelerate.”
He said the acceleration in southern states shows what can happen and he warned that states in the central parts of the country may see similar increases.
“Those lead scientists are laying out exactly what they feel needs to happen in order to suppress this and getting this virus back into the box,” he said. “The intensity of transmission is such in many countries that suppressing that virus transmission is going to require a huge effort in terms of personal behavior, community behavior, and also in some cases, as far as I can see from the reports, in stepping back some of the measures of reopening and taking a step back and trying to reset in certain areas back to an earlier stage of virus control, and that would seem prudent.”
He added: “The difficulty for us all is sometimes we know the right path, the difficulty is choosing to walk it.”
The U.S. has struggled to bring the pandemic under control and it reports more than 4.8 million recorded infections and more than 158,480 deaths, by far the most anywhere in the world.
Van Kerkhove, who is American, said Americans should not despair.
“The United States can turn this around,” she said. “We have seen this in many, many countries that have applied this comprehensive approach.”
She urged Americans to “follow the guidelines, stay at home if you’re asked to stay home, wear a mask if you’re asked to wear a mask, be part of this fight with us and we know you can turn it around.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.