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The WHO Press Conference: 15th April 2020

Written by Science

The 24 hours leading up to the WHO press conference on 15th April had been a rather dramatic set. Not only had global cases of COVID-19 surpassed 2 million, but the US President Donald Trump had announced the withdrawal of an estimated $500 million from the WHO, and (on a more positive note) the first UN ‘Solidarity Flight’ had left Addis Ababa to bring urgent medical supplies to all African nations.

Sat in the middle of the panel was Dr Tedros Ghebryeseus (the WHO Director General). Stage-left and right were prominent figures in the WHO Emergencies Programme, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove (Technical Lead), and on the opposite end of the panel sat Dr Michael Ryan (Executive Director).

It was among the already mentioned stampede of elephants in the room that Dr Tedros began his opening remarks. With a brief outline of the history of the WHO, he pointed to the post-war roots which saw the body established in 1948 under the belief that ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being’. It became clear that re-outlining these principles was an introduction to acknowledging the recent and contrary withdrawal of Donald Trump. The US is one of the largest financial contributors to the WHO; in 2019 it gave both the $116 million mandated by the UN and a further approximate $400 million in voluntary payments.

The WHO Director General called the United States a ‘longstanding and generous friend’ yet further warned that ‘when we are divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us’.

When we are divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us.

Dr Tedros Ghebryeseus, WHO Director General

Later questions returned focus on the financial implications the withdrawal of US funds would have upon the WHO. The first asked how much had already been paid by the US and, therefore, how much would they actually be withholding, whilst the second estimated a $115 million shortfall from the US’ absence and questioned whether (as was allowed under UN rules) money from elsewhere would be re-allocated to fund the WHO. Both questions came back with vague promises of further announcements.

Though clearly Donald Trump’s accusations against the WHO, whom he insisted “severely mismanaged and covered up the spread of the coronavirus” remained on the minds of attendant journalists. Another delegate asked for a ‘defence’ from the WHO for their delay in reporting that the coronavirus could be transmitted by human-to-human contact. Dr Michael Ryan argued instead that the organisation was actually quite effective in identifying the cluster of cases of atypical pneumonia in Wuhan as a novel coronavirus during influenza season, a period where ‘literally millions’ of atypical cases occur. Referring to the risk assessment published by the WHO on 5th January 2020, Dr Michael Ryan claimed they ‘alerted’ the world by this point, and “systems around the world, including the U.S., began to activate their incident management systems on January 6th”.

Dr Michael Ryan argued that the organisation was effective in identifying the cluster of cases of atypical pneumonia in Wuhan as a novel coronavirus during influenza season.

This comes as President Trump claimed the WHO had “deprived the scientific community of essential data” despite, as Dr Michael Ryan pointed out during the conference “the virus was identified on January the 7th; the sequence was shared on the 12th with the world.”

From these opening remarks, Dr Tedros also gave update on the ‘Solidarity Trial’ – a megatrial seeking to test 4 potential vaccines globally. He announced interest from 90 countries and further that 900 individual patients have enrolled. 3 vaccines have officially begun clinical trials.

3 Vaccines have officially begun clinical trials as part of the ‘Solidarity Trial’

Additionally, the WHO is also reportedly looking at anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids as another possible relief to COVID-19 symptoms. The guiding thought being that a reduced necessity for ventilation would provide better support to patients in ‘low-resource’ environments.

A later question probed the panel on the benefits of serology testing. This is testing the blood for COVID-19 antibodies to determine whether the patient had already contracted and recovered from the virus. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove pointed to the ongoing efforts of the organisation ‘Solidarity II’, in which a large number of countries were currently conducting research on serological testing. Dr Michael Ryan was clear in noting a potential drawback to these antibody tests; antibodies can take up to two weeks to develop, and thus though an individual may test negative for COVID-19 antibodies, this does not necessarily mean they have not contracted and subsequently recovered from the virus.

Further, Dr Michael Ryan also warned against ‘rapid testing’ home kits. He noted that they were generally unpredictable in sensitivity, at about 30-80% and therefore ran the risk of also supplying ‘false negatives’ and failing to identify COVID-19 in some patients.

Rapid-testing home kits were described to be geneally unpredictable in sensitivity and ran large risk of supplying false negatives.

In a moment of unquestionable celebration, the WHO General Director also emphasised the success of the Solidarity Flight. This comes after last week’s announcement of the United Nations Supply Chain Taskforce, which aimed to increase the international distribution of crucial medical supplies. Working alongside other agencies including Unicef, the Global Fund, Gavi, and the United Nations Department of Operational Support, Unitaid – the Solidarity Flight transported PPE, ventilators, and lab supplies to many African nations and is part of a wider effort to ship essential medical supplies to 95 countries across the globe.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove also made efforts to emphasise a change in the language which surrounds ‘self-isolation’. In the interest of mental health, she advocated for the phrasing ‘physicial distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’, as she commented “there’s no lockdown on laughter”. Similar ways to de-stress suggested were for individuals to “find ways to turn the news off” (but perhaps keep updated on The Courier) and allow individuals to become engaged in their respective and upcoming religious festivals, all alongside yoga and online exercise classes.

Dr Van Kerkhove advocated changing the phrase ‘self-isolation’ or ‘social distancing’ to ‘physical distancing’ commenting that there was no “lockdown on laughter”

On a final note of positivity, the last journalist promised a slightly unusual but endearing breach of personal space as she insisted she would “like to create a human shield” around the panel. Perhaps this kindness is well needed for the souls working tirelessly and with much criticism in the WHO.

Last modified: 15th April 2020

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