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Global COVID-19 total tops 12 million; WHO weighs in on airborne spread

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As the global pandemic total topped 12 million COVID-19 cases today, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced two major developments: the publication of a scientific brief about transmission, including the airborne route, and the initiation of an independent panel to review the world’s pandemic response.

With the global number now growing by about 1 million cases a week, the total climbed to 12,128,406 cases, with 551,522 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Airborne spread discussed in WHO brief

Earlier this week, an international group of more than 200 scientists signed a Clinical Infectious Diseases research letter that made a case for airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 and urged the WHO to take the possibility more seriously.

As the letter was published, WHO officials said they welcomed interactions with scientists and said they were working on a scientific brief that pulls together the growing knowledge about respiratory pathways, including the potential for airborne spread in, for example, poorly ventilated indoor areas.

Today’s scientific brief on transmission, last updated on Mar 29, covers the latest scientific publications, some of them preprints that haven’t been peer reviewed. The WHO said the brief, which also contains a related Q&A, reflects the work of its health emergencies program and its infection prevention and control experts and was reviewed by outside experts.

The brief includes airborne spread as one of the possible modes of transmission but said studies are needed to determine if viable SARS-CoV-2 can be found in air samples from settings that don’t involve aerosol-generating procedures and what role aerosols might play in transmission.

The WHO said that short-range airborne transmission can’t be ruled out in crowded, inadequately ventilated settings where infected people are present, such as churches, restaurants, and nightclubs where people are shouting, talking, or singing. However, they also note that droplet and fomite transmission could also explain human-to-human transmission in such scenarios and that superspreading events may also play a role in clusters in which airborne spread is a suspected transmission route.

Many questions remain about transmission, though current evidence suggests that the virus primarily transmits though droplet and contact routes, the WHO said. However, studies to explore the role and extent of airborne transmission outside of health facilities, especially in closed settings with poor ventilation, are urgently needed, it added.

Independent review committee leaders announced

At a member state briefing today, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, announced the start of an independent panel to evaluate the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, following through on a resolution passed by the World Health Assembly in May.

The panel will be led by Helen Clark, New Zealand’s former prime minister, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s former president. In a press release, the WHO said Clark and Sirleaf will choose other panel members, as well as an independent secretariat to support the group. Tedros said Clark and Sirleaf were selected after consulting with member states and global experts.

“This is a time for self-reflection, to look at the world we live in and to find ways to strengthen our collaboration as we work together to save lives and bring this pandemic under control,” Tedros said. “The magnitude of this pandemic, which has touched virtually everyone in the world, clearly deserves a commensurate evaluation.”

The panel is slated to present an interim report in November and a final report for next year’s World Health Assembly in May. Tedros also noted that an independent oversight committee continues to review the work of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.

In his address to member states today, Tedros said the greatest threat now isn’t the virus but rather lack of leadership and solidarity at global and national levels. “How is it difficult for humans to unite and fight a common enemy that is killing people indiscriminately? Are we unable to distinguish or identify the common enemy?” Tedros said. “Can’t we understand that the divisions and the cracks between us are an advantage for the virus?”

Countries grapple with resurgence

Several countries continue to report new or continuing rises in COVID-19 activity as governments relax restrictions, and Bulgaria today announced that it was closing bars and banning spectators at sports events because of a recent rise in cases, CNN reported.

In other related developments, Indonesia today reported a record single-day rise, with 2,657 new cases, about half of them related to a military training center in West Java, Reuters reported.

And in Japan, Tokyo reported a record daily high of 224 cases, and government officials said many of the cases are due to increased testing, especially among those working in nightclubs, many of whom in their 20s and 30s, the Japan Times reported.



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