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Covid-19 is 10 times more deadly than swine flu: WHO chief

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He says vaccine is needed to fully halt transmission of the disease

GENEVA The novel coronavirus is 10 times more deadly than swine flu, which caused a global pandemic in 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday, stressing a vaccine would be necessary to fully halt transmission.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual briefing from Geneva that the organisation was constantly learning about the new virus sweeping the globe, which has now killed nearly 115,000 people and infected over 1.8 million. "We know that Covid-19 spreads fast, and we know that it is deadly, 10 times deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic," he said.

WHO says 18,500 people died of swine flu, or H1N1, which was first uncovered in Mexico and the US in March 2009, but a medical publication estimated the toll to be between 151,700 and 575,400.

The Lancet review included estimated deaths in Africa and South-east Asia that were not accounted for by the WHO.

The outbreak, which was declared a pandemic in June 2009 and considered over by August 2010, turned out to be not as deadly as first feared.

Mr Tedros lamented on Monday that some countries are seeing a doubling of coronavirus cases every three to four days, but stressed that if countries were committed to "early case-finding, testing, isolating (and) caring for every case and tracing every contact", they could rein in the virus.

More than half of the planet's population is staying home as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus, but Mr Tedros warned "our global connectedness means the risk of re-introduction and resurgence of the disease will continue". He pointed out that while Covid-19 accelerated quickly, "it decelerates much more slowly".

"In other words, the way down is much slower than the way up," he said, stressing that "control measures must be lifted slowly... It cannot happen all at once."

"Control measures can only be lifted if the right public health measures are in place, including significant capacity for contact tracing," he said.

Regardless of the efforts put in place, the WHO acknowledged that "ultimately, the development and delivery of a safe and effective vaccine will be needed to fully interrupt transmission".

WHO spokesman Margaret Harris told a briefing in Geneva the organisation will soon issue guidance to member states listing six steps that they need to ensure they have in place before starting to ease any restrictions.

She said: "The most important one is, is your transmission controlled?"

On vaccines, Dr Harris said: "We really shouldn't be expecting to see the vaccine at least for 12 months or longer."

In a separate development, China has approved clinical trials for two more experimental vaccines, officials said yesterday, as the world's scientists race to beat the pandemic.

The vaccines use inactivated coronavirus pathogens, and the approvals pave the way for early-stage human trials, an official from China's Ministry of Science and Technology said. - AFP, REUTERS