WHO says virus effects to last for ’decades’

Geneva—The WHO said Friday that coronavirus pandemic effects would be felt for decades as its emergency committee assessed the situation six months after sounding its top alarm over the outbreak.

READ: WHO says no return to normality for 'foreseeable future'

The novel coronavirus has killed nearly 675,000 people and infected at least 17.3 million since it emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

The World Health Organization’s emergency committee, comprising 18 members and 12 advisers, is meeting for the fourth time over the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s sobering to think that six months ago, when you recommended I declare a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), there were less than 100 cases and no deaths outside China,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said as the meeting began.

“The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come.”

The committee can propose new recommendations or amend existing ones.

However, there is little doubt that the WHO will maintain the pandemic’s status as a PHEIC—its highest level of alarm—first declared on January 30.

The WHO has been sharply criticized for the length of time it took to declare an international emergency.

The United States, which accused the organization of being too close to China, officially began its withdrawal from the organization in July.

The agency has also been criticized for recommendations deemed late or contradictory, in particular on wearing masks, or the modes of transmission of the virus.

Questions unanswered

“Many scientific questions have been resolved; many remain to be answered,” Tedros said.

“Early results from serology studies are painting a consistent picture: most of the world’s people remain susceptible to this virus, even in areas that have experienced severe outbreaks.

“Many countries that believed they were past the worst are now grappling with new outbreaks. Some that were less affected in the earliest weeks are now seeing escalating numbers of cases and deaths. And some that had large outbreaks have brought them under control.”

The highly restrictive lockdowns enforced to deal with the pandemic earlier this year caused economic turmoil and an effective vaccine may be the only long-term solution to the highly contagious respiratory disease.

“Although vaccine development is happening at record speed, we must learn to live with this virus, and we must fight it with the tools we have,” said Tedros.

Devastating economic data poured in Friday as nations counted the cost of efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, even as fresh spikes forced countries including Britain to put the brakes on a return to normality.

As global daily cases approach the 300,000 mark, the impact is being felt in every sphere of life, with elections postponed in Hong Kong -- the latest blow to its democracy activists -- and the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia performed with radically reduced numbers.

In a sign of the trade-offs being forced on governments, Britain imposed new lockdowns in several northern counties Friday, just as Western Europe announced historic economic slumps that would have been nightmare scenarios at the start of the year. 

France’s economy contracted by 13.8 percent in the April-June quarter, mirroring similar devastation in Spain (18.5 percent), Portugal (14.1 percent) and Italy (12.4 percent). 

Europe as a whole saw gross domestic product (GDP) fall by 12.1 percent in the eurozone and by 11.9 percent across the Union bloc.

“It is a shocking drop, but completely understandable as the economy was shut for a considerable period,” noted Bert Colijn, senior economist at ING Bank.

Meanwhile, in the United States -- the world’s biggest economy and hardest-hit nation -- jobless Americans were bracing for an end to extra unemployment payments after Congress failed to reach a deal on extending benefits.

It came just a day after the US posted a second-quarter GDP drop of 9.5 percent from the same period a year ago, the worst it had ever recorded.

On Friday, the country recorded 1,442 new deaths, taking its overall death toll to 153,268.

Billion-dollar pharma deals

One sector that is not struggling is pharmaceuticals, as the world pins its hopes on the race for a vaccine. 

Pharma giants Sanofi and GSK announced they will receive up to $2.1 billion from the US government to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Sanofi has also struck a deal with the EU for 300 million doses if the treatment works. 

And the US-German pharma team-up of Pfizer and BioNTech signed a deal with Japan to provide 120 million doses of their vaccine contender.

They kept the size of the deal under wraps, but the US government recently put the cost of 100 million doses from those firms at almost $2.0 billion.

But many businesses are in freefall, with airline conglomerate IAG, the owner of British Airways, posting a first-half loss of 3.8 billion euros ($4.5 billion) and UK bank NatWest sliding into the red, while Dutch airline KLM and Swedish truck maker Scania each said they were shedding 5,000 jobs.

Fresh lockdowns

While strict European lockdowns were effective in bringing cases and deaths under control, an uptick in cases means the restrictions are far from over, even if they have become more localised and specific.

Britain was the latest to impose new measures Friday, banning different households from meeting indoors across Greater Manchester, and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire. 

With large Muslim populations in those areas, the ban was painfully timed, on the eve of the Eid-al-Adha festival. 

“We take this action with a heavy heart, but we can see increasing rates of COVID across Europe and are determined to do whatever is necessary to keep people safe,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Twitter.

Britain also delayed plans to reopen casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks, due to begin on Saturday, while also putting off plans to resume indoor performances and increase stadium crowds. 

The sacred hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia has been held with 10,000 Muslim faithful allowed, instead of the roughly 2.5 million that attended last year.

Pilgrims were brought in small batches into Mecca’s Grand Mosque, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the normal sea of humanity that swirls inside its walls.

Germany added three northern Spanish regions to its list of high-risk destinations, including the tourist hotspots of Barcelona and the beaches of the Costa Brava, meaning anyone arriving from those areas will have to produce a negative coronavirus test or go into quarantine for 14 days.

Denmark reversed its stance on face masks, recommending them on public transport, while Colombia hits 10,000 deaths.

“The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Friday at a meeting to assess the situation six months after declaring a global emergency.

Tedros has warned that young people should take greater efforts to stop the spread of the disease, and a new study found that hundreds of children in the US state of Georgia had contracted the virus at a summer camp last month.

Topics: World Health Organization , WHO , coronavirus pandemic , COVID-19
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