GENEVA: It would be a “fatal mistake” for any country to assume that it will not be hit by the new coronavirus, and rich countries that might have thought they were safer should expect surprises, the World Health Organization head said on Thursday.
The head of the emergency program at the WHO said Iran, which has registered the most deaths outside of China so far, could be grappling with an epidemic that is worse than it has yet been known. He said there were also talks with organizers about the fate of the Olympic games in Japan scheduled for July.
“No country should assume it won’t get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“And I even say if you take Italy, a member of the G7, it was really a surprise. So even many other developed countries you also see some surprises, should expect some surprises.”
Tedros said that epidemics in Iran, Italy and South Korea were at a “decisive point” meaning that they were still in danger by clusters of communities-borne infections, but not yet by persistent widespread transmission.
On January 30 the WHO declared the outbreak an international emergency and urged countries to prepare screening, isolation wards and public education campaigns.
“This virus has pandemic potential,” Tedros said. “This is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action to prevent infection and save lives now.”
He has said that the U.S. President Donald Trump was right to suggest hygienic initiatives similar to flu-prevention measures, such as regular hand washing.
Iran said on Thursday that its coronavirus death toll had risen to 26, with a total of 245 now infected, the largest number of deaths from the virus outside China.
Asked about Iran’s nearly 10% death rate among known cases, Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the emergency program of the WHO, said it was an indicator that the disease could have spread further in Iran than the official figures reported.
“The most likely factor is obviously this disease came unseen and undetected into Iran, the extent of infection may be broader than we think,” he said.
“I don’t suspect it has anything to do with clinical care, more to do with surveillance,” he said, adding that so far more severe cases had been detected, while milder cases would arise.
Ryan said the WHO was working closely with Tokyo Olympic Games organizers and did not believe that a decision would soon be made on whether to conduct the event as scheduled starting in July.
“Everyone is working together to try to preserve what is a fantastically important global event,” he said.