Threat of coronavirus pandemic ‘has become very real’: WHO

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    GENEVA. — The coronavirus is closer to causing a pandemic, but outbreaks in countries can still be controlled through a combination of containment and mitigation measures, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

    Four countries – China, South Korea, Italy and Iran – account for 93% of the nearly 110,000 cases reported by more than 100 countries worldwide, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

    “Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” Tedros told a news conference. “But it would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled. The bottom line is we are not at the mercy of the virus.”

    “Whether it’s pandemic or not,” he added, “the rule of the game is the same – never give up.”

    China is “bringing its epidemic under control,” while the Republic of Korea has reported a decline in new cases, Tedros said, also praising containment measures taken in Singapore.

    “We are encouraged that Italy is taking aggressive measures to contain its epidemic and we hope that those measures prove effective in the coming days,” he added.

    Italy, the worst-hit European nation, has imposed a virtual lockdown on the northern region of Lombardy and parts of neighbouring Veneto.

    The death toll from Italy’s outbreak rose by 97 to 463, the Civil Protection Agency said on Monday, a slower rate of increase than registered the day before. The total number of cases in Italy, however, jumped 24% to 9,172, the largest daily increase in terms of absolute numbers since the contagion first came to light there on Feb. 21.

    Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies expert, compared Italy’s decision to restrict movement from the hard-hit north to China’s relative success in focusing on the large epidemic in Wuhan and Hubei province to stem the spread to other provinces.

    “Reducing the flow of potential infections into other areas may offer those zones the opportunity to prepare and potentially have a different outcome. That’s what we saw in China, we saw the provinces getting an earlier warning, they were able to prepare.”It’s not going to stop disease necessarily moving out of those zones … That to me represents a reasonable tactical approach. It’s not a guarantee,” Ryan said.

    $125M PLEDGHE

    CHICAGO. – The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and two other large charities on Tuesday pledged up to $125 million to help speed the development of treatments for the fast-spreading coronavirus, which the World Health Organization said on Monday was nearing pandemic proportions.

    The effort, known as the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, will focus on new and repurposed drugs that can be used right away to treat patients infected with the novel coronavirus and possibly other viruses in the future.

    The money is intended to ensure that treatments for the virus will be available in poor countries and affordable for individuals.

    Currently, no antiviral drugs or other immune system treatments have been approved to treat COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

    The Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust medical charity are each contributing up to $50 million, and the Mastercard Impact Fund has committed up to $25 million for initial projects.

    The Gates Foundation’s funding is part of its $100 million commitment to the COVID-19 response announced last month.

    “Viruses like COVID-19 spread rapidly, but the development of vaccines and treatments to stop them moves slowly,” Mark Suzman, chief executive officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a statement.

    “If we want to make the world safe from outbreaks like COVID-19, particularly for those most vulnerable, then we need to find a way to make research and development move faster. That requires governments, private enterprise, and philanthropic organizations to act quickly to fund research and development.”

    ITALIAN, JAPANESE EFFORTS

    ROME. – Italy’s government will approve measures worth around 10 billion euros ($11.35 billion) to counteract the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, the industry minister said on Tuesday.

    Stefano Patuanelli told Radio Capital the measures would likely cause the budget deficit to rise to just under 3% of national output this year.

    A government source told Reuters on Monday the Treasury was considering lifting the budget deficit to 2.8% of national output this year. It only announced last week that it planned to hike the deficit to 2.5% from a previous goal of 2.2%.

    Patuanelli said that the government would likely approve a first group of measures worth less than the targeted 10 billion euros and that more would then be added at a second stage.

    In Tokyo, Japan unveiled on Tuesday a second package of measures worth about $4 billion in spending to cope with the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, focusing on support to small and mid-sized firms, as concerns mount about risks to the fragile economy.

    The package, totaling 430.8 billion yen ($4.1 billion) in spending, shows how much pressure policymakers are under to bolster fragile growth and stem the risk of corporate bankruptcies, as event cancellations and a slump in tourism threaten to hit the broader economy hard. – Reuters