Health and Science

WHO chief Tedros says countries that let Covid run unchecked 'are playing with fire'

Key Points
  • Surging coronavirus outbreaks in countries across Europe and the Americas are "extremely" worrying, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
  • Tedros said the outbreaks are beginning to stress health-care systems "to the breaking point."
  • While Tedros said the WHO "continues to receive encouraging news about Covid-19 vaccines," he warned that "this is not the time for complacency."
WHO chief: Countries leaving the coronavirus unchecked are playing with fire

Surging coronavirus outbreaks in countries across Europe and the Americas are "extremely" worrying and beginning to stress health-care systems "to the breaking point," the World Health Organization's top official said Monday.

"This is a dangerous virus which can attack every system in the body. Those countries that are letting the virus run unchecked are playing with fire," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters.

The coronavirus has infected more than 54 million people around the world and killed at least 1.3 million people so far, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. According to the WHO's latest situation report, the Americas have accounted for 43% of the globe's total Covid-19 cases while Europe has reported just over a quarter.

Many countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, have taken strict actions to curb the virus' spread, shuttering nonessential businesses and advising residents to stay home as much as possible.

And in Sweden, which has relied largely on voluntary health measures rather than closing its economy, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced on Monday that public gatherings will now be limited to only eight people, Reuters reported.

The U.S. is reporting a record-high weekly average of 148,725 new cases a day on Sunday, a more than 30% increase compared with a week ago, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Hopkins. Some states are beginning to impose more stringent actions, though so far the measures have varied in severity.

Oregon became one of the first states to impose harsh new measures to tamp down the virus' spread on Friday, limiting restaurants to takeout service only; closing gyms, fitness centers and indoor and outdoor event centers; and limiting attendance at places of worship, among other restrictions.

And in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a Twitter post that the state will "hit reset" and begin a statewide stay-at-home order on Monday. Residents are instructed to stay at home unless venturing out for essential services.

Meanwhile, more people are becoming hospitalized with the virus than at any point during the pandemic so far. More than 69,900 people are hospitalized with Covid-19 in the U.S., the highest number of patients since the virus was discovered in China 11 months ago, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic.

"We need to do everything we can to support health workers, keep schools open, protect the vulnerable and safeguarding the economy," Tedros said. "There is no excuse for inaction."

On Monday, Moderna reported preliminary phase three trial data that showed its coronavirus vaccine is more than 94% effective in preventing Covid-19. Those results follow similar findings from Pfizer, which announced last week that early data shows its vaccine is more than 90% effective.

While Tedros said the WHO "continues to receive encouraging news about Covid-19 vaccines," he warned that "this is not the time for complacency."

Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO's chief scientist, reiterated that vaccine doses will be limited heading into January, adding that there's still "enormous work" that needs to be done to ensure the drugs are delivered.

"Supplies are going to be limited. There are bilateral deals that many of the companies have done. So many of the doses have already been booked by some countries," she said.

— CNBC's Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.

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