Coronavirus: Cases stabilise, but outbreak could go any direction, says WHO

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference in Geneva. PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (REUTERS) - The number of cases of infection with the new coronavirus in China has stabilised, but the apparent slowdown in the epidemic spread should be viewed with "extreme caution", the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday (Feb 12).

"This outbreak could still go in any direction," the WHO's director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told a briefing in Geneva.

At the end of a two-day meeting on science and innovation into measures to tackle the new viral outbreak, Dr Tedros welcomed the "positive response of the research community" at short notice "to come up with concrete plans and commitment to work together".

He added that a WHO-led advance team that travelled to China earlier this week had made "good progress" on the composition and scope of its work.

China on Wednesday reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases in two weeks.

The head of the WHO's emergency programme, Dr Mike Ryan, also said the stabilisation of new case numbers in China was reassuring, as was the apparently less aggressive and less accelerated behaviour of the virus outside of Hubei province.

"(That) is to a great extent due to a huge public health operation in China," he told the briefing. "That ... gives us an opportunity for containment."

Dr Ryan added that it was still too early "to predict the beginning, the middle or end of the epidemic".

Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, a former WHO virologist who co-chaired the two-day, closed-door research forum in Geneva, also said Chinese scientists are testing two antiviral drugs against the new coronavirus and preliminary clinical trial results are weeks away. The forum was attended by more than 300 scientists and researchers, including some who took part virtually from China and Taiwan.

"The Chinese colleagues are very eager to participate in protocols which are being defined so that all the clinical trials are done according to the same standards and are looking towards the same outcome," she said. "They were very interested in working on such a master protocol."

The coronavirus, now dubbed Covid-19, that emerged in central China in December has infected more than 44,000 people and killed over 1,100 in China and has spread to at least 24 other countries.

Dr Kieny said quite a number of patients have already been dosed with a combination of the antiviral drugs ritonavir and lopinavir, but she did not have an exact count.

"(It) would be excellent if it would work because this drug is available in particular as a generic formulation for the treatment of HIV, so this would clearly be a drug that would be available," Dr Kieny said.

The combination HIV therapy is sold under the brand name Kaletra by AbbVie Inc.

It remains to be seen whether the treatment will prove effective against the new virus, she said.

"We don't know the result, and we still have to wait for a few days, or a few weeks to have a result."

A state-run Chinese research institute applied last week for a patent on the use of the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir from US-based Gilead Sciences Inc, which scientists hope may be effective against the coronavirus.

"They will very soon start to dose patients on remdesivir... which had been tested without much success with Ebola, but Ebola virus and coronavirus are different and it may have a better success with corona," Dr Kieny said.

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