Coronavirus: WHO says response to call for US$675 million in funding to battle outbreak is falling short

Robert Delaney

The World Health Organisation on Thursday chided the international community for not stepping up enough to finance the battle to contain the novel coronavirus that has shut down many parts of China and killed more than 2,000 people.

The United Nations health agency issued a call earlier this month for US$675 million “to implement priority public health measures in support of countries to prepare for and respond to” the spread of the new coronavirus that causes the potentially deadly respiratory illness known as Covid-19.

“Considering the urgency and considering that we’re fighting a very dangerous enemy, we’re surprised that the response is not really something that we would expect,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a press briefing on Thursday from Geneva.

“Because of the serious measures that China is taking, the number of cases in the rest of the world is small, but it doesn’t mean that the small number of cases in the rest of the world will stay the same for long,” Tedros said.

“It wasn’t without reason some couple of weeks ago I said this virus is very dangerous and it’s public enemy No 1,” he added. “But it’s not being treated as such, and one important indicator is the response, especially to financing the response.”

Tedros did not say how much funding has been committed since the appeal was issued. The WHO did not immediately respond a query about the amount of funding pledged so far.

On February 7, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo pledged to spend up to US$100 million to assist China and other countries affected by the contagion.

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Pompeo noted at the time that his department had “facilitated the transportation of nearly 17.8 tons [16.1 tonnes] of donated medical supplies to the Chinese people, including masks, gowns, gauze, respirators, and other vital materials”.

Wang Chen, president of the China Academy of Medical Science, said on Wednesday that despite a recent drop in the rate of new cases and fatalities on the mainland, the world should be prepared for the possibility that Covid-19 – the official name of the illness caused by the coronavirus – was here to stay.

Wang said the new coronavirus was different from the virus which caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which was both contagious and fatal.

“This new coronavirus may become a long-term disease that coexists with humans, just like flu,” he told state broadcaster CCTV.

Ukrainian law enforcement officers clear the way as demonstrators block a road during a protest against the arrival of a plane carrying evacuees from China’s Hubei province. Photo: Reuters

That possibility is why part of the funds the WHO seeks will be earmarked to speed up research and development, and to provide for “the equitable availability of” treatments, vaccines and diagnostics. The agency is asking for US$4.7 million for this portion of its “strategic preparedness and response” plan.

“Our objective still is containment,” Jaouad Mahjour, the WHO’s deputy director general, said at Thursday’s briefing.

Mahjour added that “while hammering the outbreak now using the simple public health solutions, we have to also prepare for any eventualities or worse scenarios.

“That’s why we need a vaccine.”

The WHO plan also calls for US$640 million to enhance response operations, including surveillance, laboratory, and emergency coordination capacity.

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