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WHO official says world moving too slowly on COVID-19: ‘We’re at a tipping point’

Bruce Aylward, Team Lead WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, speaks to the media about the COVID-19 after returning from China, during a press conference, at the World Health Organization, WHO, headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.
Bruce Aylward, Team Lead WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19, speaks to the media about the COVID-19 after returning from China, during a press conference, at the World Health Organization, WHO, headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

The world is at a tipping point when it comes to COVID-19, and governments need to take the risk more seriously, according to a senior World Health Organization official.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian doctor who is assistant director-general at the WHO and recently returned from a trip to China to study COVID-19 response, told Global News Thursday that public health measures can “take the heat out of the outbreak” and save lives.

“We’re at a pretty critical point right now,” he said. “We’re seeing evidence that this can actually be contained and controlled, but we’re not seeing that effort to contain and control it.

“The most critical thing here is speed.”

As of Thursday, there were more than 97,000 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with more than 3,300 deaths, according to data compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

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The virus is a respiratory virus which spreads in a way similar to the flu, Aylward said. And so, by tracing and isolating people with whom patients have come in contact, you can help attenuate its spread.

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“People have to know what COVID is. It’s a high fever and a dry cough,” he said. “And people with those symptoms have got to be able to get tested and tested quickly.”

READ MORE: Cough, kiss, touch — How the new coronavirus can (and can’t) spread

Then, public health officials need to focus on their contacts, he said.

“That can prevent an awful lot of damage to the health of people in a country and to the economies, as we’ve seen in some of the countries affected.”

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China’s measures to contain the virus, which included effectively shutting down cities and quarantining millions of people, were effective, he said.

“China, with some very very rigorous and disciplined application of public health measures, [was] able to take the heat out of the outbreak and bring the case numbers down and save a lot of lives,” he said.

READ MORE: How Canada is encouraging self-isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19

While health measures like quarantines need to be appropriate to the location and severity of the disease in a given region, they’re worth considering, he said.

“Remember, this is a virus that can kill somewhere between two and four per cent of the people that it infects,” he said. “It can infect an awful lot of people because the global population has no immunity to this virus as far as we know.

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“So when we talk about the measures, we’re making a judgment about human life here. And people often ask me, is that too much? It depends on how you value your vulnerable populations who are at risk here.”

READ MORE: With COVID-19 in Iran reaching Canada, expert warns outbreak will only escalate

While there is a risk of asymptomatic transmission — people passing on the virus even though they have no symptoms — there isn’t any evidence yet that this is a major source of infection, he said.

“The vast majority of the transmission is going to be driven by people who have the symptoms as well as their very close contacts.”

This is why quarantines can work, he said.

When it comes to Canada, Aylward says he’s been impressed by what the government has done so far. But the key to preventing a major COVID-19 outbreak, he says, isn’t government action — it’s what ordinary people do.

“It is not the Public Health Agency of Canada that is going to stop COVID. It’s going to be the population of Canada working as a surveillance system, washing their hands and rapidly detecting and notifying and working with the system.”

— with files from Dawna Friesen, Global National

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