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VIRUS OUTBREAK

WHO pushes countries to share more patient details in fight against virus

Paris

THE World Health Organization (WHO) is pressing member countries affected by the new coronavirus to share more information on cases, saying a shortage of details has hampered efforts to combat the outbreak.

A week after the WHO deemed the virus an international threat, the organisation said it's not getting all the data it needs to upgrade its advice to companies and governments worldwide. The virus has spread beyond China to at least 23 countries and sickened more than 28,000 people.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Tuesday urged member countries to step up their reporting. At the time, the WHO said it had received complete reports for only about 38 per cent of coronavirus cases reported outside of China.

Since then, "the number of countries we've received comprehensive data from is improving, but not complete", Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program, said on Wednesday at a press conference in Geneva.

In the uncertain times that follow the appearance of a new pathogen, information that may appear insignificant - such as whether a patient has a fever or how he or she first got ill - can be crucial.

While some US health officials have questioned China's transparency, Mr Tedros has praised the country for its response while saying "some high-income countries" were not sharing all the data that was needed.

Countries have an obligation not only to report the existence of cases but also provide details such as patients' symptoms, their response to treatment and the circumstances of their infection. They've agreed to provide the information under the International Health Regulations, which are not technically enforceable, but exposes laggards to being named and shamed by the WHO.

The WHO needs these details to gauge "if containment is feasible", according to David Heymann, head of the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House, an international affairs think tank. "We pay for it" when countries don't comply, he noted.

"It's as if you're closing one eye to things that are happening," added Mr Heymann, who led the WHO's response to SARS in 2003.

The agency's request came as the WHO's executive board prepared for discussions on Thursday on how to deal with future health emergencies.

"The majority of the world is not prepared," said Marion Koopmans, a virology professor who's a member of the WHO committee that determines whether outbreaks are global health emergencies. "What we need is a rethinking of surveillance."

Some patient details might be more obvious than others, depending on the context, according to Prof Koopmans.

For instance, doctors in southern China routinely ask patients whether they have had contact with animals, something that other countries need to train their physicians to do, she said. Otherwise the new coronavirus would have easily escaped notice because its symptoms resemble those of more common diseases like pneumonia or the flu. BLOOMBERG