(CN) — The World Health Organization said the U.S. should reconsider its decision to withdraw, part of a muted response Monday where the global health agency had to confront theories from some doctors that the novel coronavirus may have mutated into a less virulent form.
The observations have been coming out of Italy, which had been the earliest hotspot of the virus in Europe but is now steadily loosening restrictions. Four weeks since Italy lifted a nationwide lockdown, the country has not experienced a spike in cases as some doctors feared.
With the country set to open up for travel between regions Wednesday, and then welcoming travelers from abroad, Italy’s national broadcaster RAI aired a report this weekend where Alberto Zangrillo, the head of the intensive care unit at Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital, said the virus may have weakened.
“About a month ago we heard epidemiologists say that there would be a new wave by the end of the month, at the start of June,” Zangrillo said. “In reality, from a clinical point of view, the virus doesn’t exist anymore.”
Zangrillo said tests on patients for Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, are coming back with very small traces of the virus compared with what clinics were seeing a month ago.
“Terrorizing the country is something someone has to take responsibility for,” he said.
The doctor’s comments sparked a debate among experts in Italy about whether the observations about virulence are only anecdotal. Italian experts are divided over whether the virus has mutated and become more mild; whether it is less infectious in warmer weather; or whether lockdowns, social distancing and other measures are simply keeping it in check.
WHO experts said the evidence of mutatation is thin.
“In terms of the transmissibility, that has not changed. In terms of the severity, that has not changed,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and WHO technical lead for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Van Kerkhove urged against lowering measures to contain the virus.
“If we let the virus go, it will transmit; if we let the virus go, it will infect people, and it will cause severe illness in about 20% of people,” she said.
Dr. Michael Ryan, an WHO epidemiologist leading emergency-response efforts, emphasized the importance of studying the reports out of Italy.
“But we still need to be careful,” the Irish doctor said. “This is still a killer virus. There are still thousands of people every day dying from this virus. So, we need to be exceptionally careful not to create a sense that all of a sudden the virus by its own volition now has decided to be less pathogenic. That is not the case at all.”
Rather than the virus weakening, Ryan floated the theory that it is not infecting as many people in Italy, and elsewhere, simply because of all the work to suppress it.
“It may be weaker because we’re doing better, not because the virus itself has weakened,” he said. “I hope the virus is weakening, we all hope that; but we can’t at this point take that chance. And we have to continue to do the things we are doing.”
Ryan conceded the possibility of a virus becoming less virulent: “New viruses in human populations can do one of two things: They can evolve and become less pathogenic or sometimes they can become even more pathogenic.”
He said viruses do not want to kill their hosts “because the virus can survive better if it can transmit from person to person.” This is the case with many childhood sicknesses, Ryan added.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile focused at the briefing on America’s purported withdrawal from the organization — a move that critics say is meant to deflect criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump’s botched pandemic response.
“The only communication we had, or announcement, was actually Friday’s media announcement from the U.S.,” Tedros said in response to a reporter’s question.
Trump has for weeks accused the WHO of helping China cover up the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan — an allegation rejected by the WHO, China and many experts. As in recent briefings, Tedros either refrained from commenting on the spat between his agency and the U.S. or provided circumspect responses.
It remains unclear how the U.S. legally can withdraw from a United Nations agency that it had a huge hand in creating as part of its efforts after World War II to create a new world order where countries would adhere to international laws overseen by global agencies.
While there is no provision in the WHO’s 1948 constitution, drafted in New York, for a country to withdraw from the agency, U.S. law empowers the government to withdraw from treaties into which it enters.
Congress passed a law in 1948 specifying that the U.S. can withdraw from the WHO. But that law also says the U.S. would give a one-year notice before withdrawing and pay dues it owes. Trump’s unilateral decision to withdraw may also be challenged as unconstitutional, since he may need congressional approval to do so.
Tedros declined to discuss the process for withdrawal but used his prepared remarks as a call for the U.S. to stay onboard.
“The world has long benefited from the long collaborative engagement with the government and the people of the United States,” Tedros said. “The U.S. government’s and its people’s contribution and generosity towards global health over many decades has been immense and it has made a great difference in public health all around the world. It is WHO’s wish for this collaboration to continue.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.