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WHO Officially Certifies COVID-19 A Pandemic


Joining us now is Dr. Margaret Harris of the World Health Organization's coronavirus response team. The WHO has now characterized the coronavirus as a pandemic. Dr. Harris joins us via Skype from Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

MARGARET HARRIS: Thank you very much for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: The WHO is very cautious about using the term pandemic and had used caution for weeks now when it comes to the coronavirus. What triggered this decision to now call it a pandemic?

HARRIS: What's really changed is we've moved - we've been saying for weeks and weeks, get ready. Get ready. Prepare. This virus is going to be coming to your communities. Get your health systems ready. Get your people ready. What's changed is we are now saying it's here. So we've gone from get ready to get active. Get serious.

Now we all have to accept that we have got the virus or will get the virus soon in our communities, so we need to take the actions that will stop it, and that is identifying the virus, identifying people infected with the virus, identifying people who've been in contact with those infected with the virus and being ready to look after the people who get severely ill with the virus.

MARTIN: But I guess I'm wondering the metric by which you define something as a pandemic - is it the number of cases? Is it the number of countries affected? Is it the rate of the spread?

HARRIS: It's a bit of all of those things. But the important thing is where it is and the type of spread. So when we started to see widespread, you know, significant community outbreaks in a number of different parts of the world and very concerning outbreaks - so we're seeing very concerning outbreaks in Europe. We're seeing this in the Americas. We're seeing emergence in Latin America. We're seeing emergence in the Pacific.

So essentially, we're seeing outbreaks of concern around the world. We've got more than two-thirds of the global - countries representing two-thirds of the global population now reporting cases. So for us, that means that is the tipping point at which we need to advise the world this is now characterized as a pandemic.

MARTIN: Can you still contain the virus, or is it just about mitigating its effects at this point?

HARRIS: We're really talking about blending. So you're quite right to use those words contain and mitigate. Contain is identifying everybody who's got the virus, identifying everybody who's been exposed, working with them to stay - to self-isolate, stay out of the community, stop spreading it. But also, you have to accept that people are going to get sick. You are going to see some cases that you haven't identified. So you need to mitigate those effects. You need to be ready to treat the people who get very ill.

MARTIN: What else needs to happen right now on the testing front or on restrictions to behaviors, businesses closing? I mean, we're seeing things kind of happen ad hoc in different countries. Does there need to be a more unified response?

HARRIS: Certainly testing is very important because the symptoms, as everybody has noted, are not that obvious. A lot of people have what we call a mild case, so many people who've had the cough tell me that didn't feel mild at the time, even if they were classified as having a mild case. But some people do report very, very few symptoms. So testing is really the only way you can be sure that people have the virus and also then make decisions about asking them - isolating them but also asking those around them who may have been exposed to self-isolate and also look out for symptoms.

The other crucial thing is social distancing because we know that this is carried by droplets and that the droplets tend to fall within one meter of the person who's carrying them. And as I said, they may not be aware at all. They may not feel ill. They may simply be breathing out droplets. So when speaking, you know, we all - every now and then, we spray rather than say. We can't help it. So - but those droplets fall within a meter of that person.

So if we can keep separate, if we can give up sort of the desire to be together in large crowds for a while, we can really limit the spread. So that's where government decisions about how to achieve that by asking people to work from home, by reducing the number of people who will be on transport, by limiting the mass gatherings or even stopping mass gatherings - all those things can make a huge difference.

MARTIN: Dr. Margaret Harris is part of the coronavirus response team and a spokesperson for the World Health Organization. Thank you so much for your time.

HARRIS: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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