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COVID-19: Q&A with Dr Galea

Q. In the latest meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee, the members of the committee decided to extend the PHEIC status of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is your take on this decision and its recommendations?

A: The Emergency Committee is made up of international experts who provide technical advice to the WHO Director-General in the context of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). The Committee provides views on:

· whether the event constitutes a PHEIC;

· the Temporary Recommendations that should be taken by the country experiencing a PHEIC or by other countries to prevent or reduce the international spread of disease and avoid unnecessary interference with international trade and travel; and

· the termination of a PHEIC.

More on the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) and Emergency Committees here.

As per normal procedures under the IHR, Emergency Committees reconvene within 3 months of a meeting to review temporary recommendations. The previous meeting of this committee was on 30 January 2020. The Emergency Committee reconvened on 30 April to evaluate the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to advise on updated recommendations.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on 1 May that its Emergency Committee unanimously agreed that the current outbreak remains a “public health emergency of international concern.”

In its 1 May statement the Emergency Committee made a series of recommendations. Among those, the Emergency Committee recommended that WHO work with the International Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to help identify the animal source of the virus. This follows earlier recommendations from the Emergency Committee to WHO and to China on 23 January and 30 January to pursue efforts to identify the animal source of the outbreak.

Q. Recently, WHO experts said the available scientific evidence suggests that the COVID-19 virus is naturally occurring. Would you share your view on this?

A: All available evidence to date suggests that the virus has a natural animal origin and is not a manipulated or constructed virus. Many researchers have been able to look at the genomic features of the virus and have found that evidence does not support that it is a laboratory construct. More on the virus origin can be found in the WHO Situation Report published on 23 April.

During the WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 in February, WHO and China jointly identified a set of research priorities to address knowledge gaps, including the animal source of the COVID-19 virus. WHO was advised that a number of investigations to better understand the source of the outbreak in China were underway or planned, including investigations of human cases with symptom onset in and around Wuhan in late 2019, environmental sampling from markets and farms in areas where the first human cases were identified, and detailed records on the source and type of wildlife species and farmed animals sold in these markets.

Results from these studies will be crucial to helping prevent similar outbreaks in the future, and China has the clinical, epidemiological, and laboratory capacity to conduct such studies.

WHO is not currently involved in the research in China but would be interested and willing to work with international partners to participate in investigations around the animal origins at the invitation of the Chinese Government.

Q: What is your vision for the next phase of cooperation between WHO and China?

A: Regarding COVID-19, China’s research and development capacity can contribute to global efforts to develop a vaccine and treatments, and to help make them accessible to all who need them. The support China is providing along with other countries to share expertise and contribute to the development of diagnostics and equipment for epidemic control is critical to assist countries with less resourced health systems respond to COVID-19.

China has passed the first peak in its fight against COVID-19 epidemic. The challenge now is to prevent further peaks as normal routines resume. Until there is either population-wide immunity, effective treatment, or a proven vaccine, the virus remains a risk to people. Moving forward, reducing risk across the population through everyday infection prevention in all settings is essential. Now is not the time to let down our guard.

I think of my own visit to Wuhan in January and want to again pay tribute to the frontline health workers across China and indeed around the world, both in the clinical and public health fields.

WHO will continue its close cooperation with China – not only the COVID-19 response but also on other essential health priorities such as immunization, reduction in chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, eradicating malaria, controlling infectious diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis, and helping to build a healthier future for all people.