Health and Science

WHO officials make urgent plea for medical gear: 'Supplies are rapidly depleting'

Key Points
  • The WHO estimates that each month 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles will be required for the COVID-19 response.
  • It said manufacturers need to increase personal protective gear supplies by 40% to meet the needs of the medical community. 
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus R speaks at a daily briefing in Geneva, Switzerland.
Chen Junxia | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

World Health Organization officials called on medical supply manufacturers to "urgently increase production" to meet the global demand that is needed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak rapidly spreading across the world.

"Supplies are rapidly depleting. WHO estimates that each month 89 million medical masks will be required for the COVID-19 response, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles," Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters at the organization's Geneva headquarters.

Tedros said manufacturers need to increase personal protective gear supplies by 40% to meet the needs of the medical community. 

On Capitol Hill in Washington, Health and Human Services' assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Dr. Robert Kadlec, said the U.S. has about 35 million N95 respirator masks. That's about 10% of the 3.5 billion he estimates the U.S. will need if COVID-19 erupts into a full-blown pandemic.

World health officials have said that N95 face masks are effective in protecting health-care workers from the infection, prompting global demand for them to surge. In China, demand for face masks has depleted the country's stockpile where doctors and nurses face shortages, according to the South China Morning Post.

WHO officials announced on Monday that the number of new coronavrius cases outside China was almost nine times higher than that inside the country in the previous 24 hours. They also increased the risk assessment of the coronavirus Friday to "very high" at the global level. In January, it declared the virus a global health emergency, while urging the public against overreacting to the virus.

"As one epidemic looks like ending, one front of the fight closing, another is becoming increasingly complex" Tedros said Tuesday. China reported 120 new cases in the last 24 hours, compared with 1,848 new infections in 48 countries, with most of those cases coming from Italy, Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran, he said. Emerging from Wuhan, China, more than two months ago, COVID-19 has already spread to more than 91,300 people across at least 73 countries, killing at least 3,110 — including at least six in the U.S. 

"Iranian medical doctors and nurses have concerns that they don't necessarily have enough equipment, supplies, ventilators, respirators, oxygen and all the things you've heard spoken about in many of the press conferences," said Dr. Michael Ryan, who runs WHO's emergency program. "Those needs are more acute for the Iranian health system than they are most any other health system."

The organization has yet to classify the virus as a pandemic and has maintained that its attention is on containing the spread, although the virus has substantially moved beyond China and has now been found in nearly 60 countries.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Senate lawmakers Tuesday that the current outbreak already meets two of the three main criteria under the technical designation of a pandemic.

"It is a new virus, and it is capable of person-to-person spread," she said in prepared testimony at a hearing. "If sustained person-to-person spread in the community takes hold outside China, this will increase the likelihood that the WHO will deem it a global pandemic."

Epidemics have emerged in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, where the number of cases is rapidly increasing. The U.S. recorded its first six deaths from the virus since this weekend, while New York state confirmed a second case earlier Tuesday. Every country should prepare for its first case and no one should assume it won't get any cases, Tedros said last month.

"This is a unique virus, with unique features. This virus is not influenza," Tedros said. "We are in uncharted territory."

Tedros shed more light on the virus Tuesday, saying it spreads similar to influenza, by small droplets of fluid from the nose and mouth of someone who's sick.

"However, there are some important differences," he said. "First COVID-19 does not transmit as efficiently as influenza from the data we've seen so far. With influenza, people who are infected but not yet sick are major drivers of transmission, which doesn't appear to be the case with COVID-19."

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Tedros said last week that health officials would not "hesitate" to declare the outbreak a pandemic if "that's what the evidence suggests." On Friday at a press briefing, he said that most cases of COVID-19 can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases and there isn't any "evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities." That's one reason why WHO hasn't declared the outbreak a pandemic, Tedros said Friday.

Ryan said Monday scientists still don't know exactly how COVID-19 "behaves," saying it's not like influenza. "We know it's not transmitting in exactly the same way that influenza was, and that offers us a glimmer, a chink of light, that this virus can be suppressed and pushed and contained," he said.

Ryan also said health officials think countries are being transparent, but "it's very easy to be caught unaware in an epidemic situation."

WHO officials on Friday increased the risk assessment of the coronavirus to "high" to "very high" at a global level. The world can still avoid "the worst of it," but the increased risk assessment means the WHO's "level of concern is at its highest," Ryan said at the time.

Health officials have said the respiratory disease is capable of spreading through human-to-human contact, droplets carried through sneezing and coughing and germs left on inanimate objects. The virus appears to be particularly troublesome for older people and those with underlying health conditions. Symptoms can include a sore throat, runny nose, fever or pneumonia and can progress all the way to multiple organ failure or death in some severe cases.

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