Coronavirus: WHO press conference

Pandemic has entered new phase in Asia-Pacific: WHO

Nations that contained spread in early phase moving to new phase where large-scale disruptions can be minimised, it says

Dr Takeshi Kasai, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, seen here at a virtual media briefing in May, said yesterday that the direction that the epidemic now takes depends on the actions of governments and people
Dr Takeshi Kasai, the World Health Organisation's regional director for the Western Pacific, seen here at a virtual media briefing in May, said yesterday that the direction that the epidemic now takes depends on the actions of governments and people across the Western Pacific region.PHOTO: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

The recent surge in cases in countries that had managed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic in its early months actually marks their move to a new phase for which they are better prepared, said a senior World Health Organisation (WHO) official.

Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said at a virtual press conference yesterday: "What we are observing is not simply a resurgence. We believe it's a signal that we've entered a new phase of the pandemic in the Asia-Pacific.

"In this phase countries are increasingly able to minimise large-scale disruptions to people's lives and economies."

Countries such as Japan, Vietnam South Korea and Australia had moved quickly to contain Covid-19 in the early months of the pandemic, but are now fighting new surges.

In some cases, the second wave is larger than the initial outbreaks, said Dr Kasai.

The surge in cases is due to countries having relaxed their earlier stringent measures as they move towards reopening their economies.

He said these countries "will need to deal with multiple increases or surges, but in a sustainable way".

They need to have "earlier targeted response" to prevent "big disruptions to the economy and people's life".

They should continue to improve their healthcare system and protect the vulnerable.

And people in these countries need to "maintain their healthy behaviour, not just protecting themselves, but also their family, communities", while businesses have to find ways to operate as they minimise the risk of the virus spreading.

Dr Kasai said: "By combining early detection and rapid response to emerging infections, and people sticking to the prevention measures that are part of the new normal, many (countries) are now detecting outbreaks earlier and responding to them faster, with more targeted intervention."

Countries planning to open up "need to continue to improve their surveillance system, and share that information". They must come up with an agreement with the other countries that allow travel on how to manage those who are travelling, so any problems are spotted and dealt with as early as possible.

This agile approach will help them to restore their health systems, societies and economies.

Dr Kasai added: "The direction that the epidemic now takes depends on the actions of governments and people across the region."

The WHO's Western Pacific region includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Pacific island states, among others.

Asked about moves by some countries to open up for international travel, which has practically come to a standstill, Dr Kasai said countries should adopt "a risk-based approach". They need to look at where people are travelling to and from, and the status of the outbreak in those countries.

Other considerations include the kind of people who are coming into the country, and the controls or intervention that can be put in place.

Dr Kasai said: "This requires continuous information sharing and assessment, and dialogue between the countries."

Meanwhile, countries planning to open up "need to continue to improve their surveillance system, and share that information".

They must come up with an agreement with the other countries that allow travel on how to manage those who are travelling, so any problems are spotted and dealt with as early as possible.

On the effect of mutation of the coronavirus, Dr Kasai said that based on the thousands of gene sequences available, this is a relatively stable virus, and work on a vaccine will not be affected.

He said the "significant investments in health emergency preparedness made over several years" by countries in the region are paying off, and are one reason for the comparatively low Covid-19 numbers here.

One lesson learnt during the pandemic is that a country's response capacity has to be scalable, to match the size of the outbreak.

Dr Kasai concluded: "Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. We know it's a long and difficult stretch, and we will face setbacks. But we must keep trying, learning and doing it together.

"How we fare is up to each and every one of us. If we make the right choices every day, we will come out of this as safe and as strong as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2020, with the headline 'Pandemic has entered new phase in Asia-Pacific: WHO'. Subscribe