Early warnings from WHO on the dangers of COVID-19

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a COVID-19 news conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Christopher Black / WHO / Handout via Reuters

NAIROBI — Following accusations that the World Health Organization has mismanaged the COVID-19 response, including that it didn’t warn the world early enough about the severity of the crisis, U.S. President Trump announced Tuesday he would pull the nation’s contributions to the agency. The U.S. is the largest contributor to WHO, giving over $400 million per year. It’s unclear whether Trump has the authority to take this step.

“They called it wrong. They really — they missed the call. They could have called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known. And they probably did know,” Trump said during a press briefing last week.

“I call upon the international community to take this message seriously and use the window of opportunity to respond while we have time to respond."

— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO

We pulled together some of the moments when WHO did warn about the looming crisis facing the world, in the initial months, even when the coronavirus was still largely contained within China.

Via YouTube.

Jan. 30 — With reports of 9,692 COVID-19 cases in China and 213 deaths, and only 82 cases outside of China, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

COVID-19 — a timeline of the coronavirus outbreak

Keep reading the latest developments in the coronavirus outbreak.

“We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility,” he said.

Feb. 10 — While much of WHO guidance around preventing the spread of COVID-19 was focused on travel history to China at the time, Tedros warned that instances of onward transmission from people with no travel history to China were concerning, and that “the detection of this small number of cases could be the spark that becomes a bigger fire,” calling on countries to “prevent a bigger fire.”

Feb. 11 — Tedros called the outbreak a “very grave threat for the rest of the world.”

“We have a window of opportunity now for the rest of the world. We see what's happening in China in terms of the number of cases and fatalities, so if we don't use the window of opportunity we have now, if we don't operate with a sense of urgency, there could be a serious consequence,” he said. “I will continue to remind until the world really takes this seriously, does it with a sense of urgency and believes from the heart that time is of the essence now.”

Feb. 15 — In a speech at the Munich Security Conference, Tedros called for an increase in funding to the response.

“We’re concerned by the lack of urgency in funding the response from the international community,” he said.

Feb. 20  “... this virus is very dangerous, and it’s public enemy number one. But it's not being treated as such and one important indicator is the response, especially to financing the response so I call upon the international community to take this message seriously and use the window of opportunity to respond while we have time to respond," Tedros said.

By this point, China had reported 74,675 cases of COVID-19, including 2,121 deaths. Outside China there were 1,076 cases in 26 countries, with seven deaths.

Feb. 21 — Tedros said that the window of opportunity to contain the outbreak was narrowing, repeating concerns of the number of cases with no clear epidemiological link, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case.

Feb. 24 — “This is a time for all countries, communities, families and individuals to focus on preparing,” he said. "We must focus on containment while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic.”

Feb. 27 — “We are at a decisive point,” Tedros said. “My message to each of these countries is: this is your window of opportunity. If you act aggressively now, you can contain this virus. You can prevent people getting sick. You can save lives. So my advice to these countries is to move swiftly.”

March 2 “This virus is not influenza. We are in uncharted territory. We have never seen before a respiratory pathogen that’s capable of community transmission but at the same time, which can also be contained with the right measures,” Tedros said.

March 9 — “Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” Tedros said.

March 11 — Tedros declared the global COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. “We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” he said, adding that “we have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action.”

March 16 — For the first time since the beginning of the outbreak, infections and deaths outside China surpass those within China.

“This is the defining global health crisis of our time,” Tedros said. “The days, weeks and months ahead will be a test of our resolve, a test of our trust in science and a test of solidarity.”

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About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a Global Health Reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.