Surge in cases in countries that contained coronavirus in early months signals move to new phase, says WHO

SINGAPORE – The recent surge in Covid-19 cases in countries that had managed to contain the 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 official.

Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific, said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday (Aug 18): “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 epidemic, but are now fighting new surges.

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

The surge in cases comes because countries have 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 lives”.

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 their family, communities”, and for businesses to find ways to operate, while minimising 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.”

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 coming into the country, and the control or intervention that can be put in place.

He 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 will not affect work on a vaccine.

He said the “significant investments in health emergency preparedness made over several years” by countries in the region are paying off, and is 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.”

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