WHO concerned as global death toll approaches 50,000

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has voiced deep concern about "the rapid escalation and global spread" of COVID-19 cases.

It has now reached 205 countries and territories.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said today that his agency, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), backed debt relief to help developing countries cope with the pandemic's social and economic consequences.

"In the past five weeks there has been a near-exponential growth in the number of new cases and the number of deaths has more than doubled in the past week," Tedros told a virtual news conference in Geneva, where the UN health organization is based.

"In the next few days we will reach one million confirmed cases and 50,000 deaths worldwide," he said.

China, where the coronavirus outbreak first emerged in December, reported dwindling new infections on Wednesday and for the first time disclosed the number of asymptomatic cases, which could complicate how trends in the outbreak are read. Its latest figures excluded 130 new sufferers of the highly contagious disease who do not show symptoms, its statistics showed.

Asked about the distinction, Dr Maria ver Kerkhove, a WHO epidemiologist who was part of an international team who went to China in February, said WHO's definition included laboratory-confirmed cases "regardless of the development of symptoms".

"From data that we have seen from China in particular, we know that individuals who are identified, who are listed as asymptomatic, about 75% of those actually go on to develop symptoms," she said, describing them as having been in a "pre-symptomatic phase".

The new coronavirus causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

The outbreak continues to be driven by people who show signs of disease including fever and cough, but it is important for the WHO to capture that "full spectrum of illness", she added.

Tedros, referring to proposed debt relief, said: "Many countries, developing countries cannot really support their societies especially during lockdowns, especially those community members who work for their daily bread. That is why we call on the international community to have debt relief to support those countries.

"We are proposing an expedited process to support countries so their economies are not getting into crisis, [and] their communities are not getting into crisis," he said.

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