Coronavirus likely to be declared pandemic ‘any day now’: Expert

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The coronavirus, which has infected over 90,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,000, will likely be declared a pandemic soon by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood, professor of epidemiology at Yale University’s School of Public Health.

“It is likely that the WHO will declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic any day now. It is definitely an international emergency,” said Dr. Khoshnood in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

The coronavirus is currently classified as an epidemic, a regional outbreak of an illness that spreads unexpectedly. A pandemic is “the worldwide spread of a new disease,” according to the WHO.

Dr. Khoshnood said the most important factor in epidemic and pandemic response is government “trust and transparency” and called on countries with coronavirus outbreaks, particularly Iran, to tell the truth about the severity of their epidemics.

“The international community relies on countries like China, Iran, and Italy, to tell the world what their coronavirus numbers are, to allow other countries to make informed decisions about travel,” said Dr. Khoshnood. “If they lie to us, unfortunately that could have consequences because we don’t have access to their data.”

“The WHO encourages governments to share their coronavirus data, “but it can’t force them to do so,” he added.

A nurse cares for patients in a ward dedicated for people infected with the coronavirus, at Forqani Hospital in Qom, Iran on Feb. 26, 2020. (AP)
A nurse cares for patients in a ward dedicated for people infected with the coronavirus, at Forqani Hospital in Qom, Iran on Feb. 26, 2020. (AP)

Death toll rises in Iran

There are over 2,530 cases of the coronavirus across the Middle East, and most came from Iran, which currently has the highest death toll from the virus after China, where it originated.

Iran’s trading relationship with China is likely why the Islamic Republic was first hit with the virus, and the lack of response by Iranian officials exacerbated the situation, according to Dr. Khoshnood.

“Unfortunately, Iranian officials delayed travel restrictions to China despite many cases being reported,” said Dr. Khoshnood, adding that the officials at first prioritized public events over public health, as it wanted large amounts of people to participate in Iran’s recent parliamentary elections and the 41st anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“It seems like some of the health officials knew there were coronavirus cases, but they decided to keep it quiet, to allow people to celebrate,” said Dr. Khoshnood. “But that unfortunately took a toll.”

Now the country is a coronavirus epicenter. The death toll in Iran stands at 77, with 2,336 confirmed cases, the government said on Tuesday.

Those infected include 23 Iranian members of parliament, Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar and Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus, who downplayed the virus before becoming infected with it.

The virus has taken the lives of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s adviser Mohammad Mirmohammadi and Iran's former ambassador to the Vatican Hadi Khosroshahi.

Iran’s health minister Saeed Namaki warned this week will be “tough” for the country as it will be the epidemic’s “peak,” a prognosis challenged by Dr. Khoshnood.

“We can’t really predict the peak. I don’t think the officials in Iran know what the actual number of infected people is. It could easily be that two or three weeks from now we see a much higher peak than this week,” said Dr. Khoshnood.

A a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom, Iran. (AP)
A a man disinfects the shrine of Saint Masoumeh against coronavirus in the city of Qom, Iran. (AP)

Spreading through spirituality

The virus is spreading quickly in Iran’s holy cities of Mashhad and Qom, both home to religious shrines, which worshippers often touch and kiss as a sign of their faith.

Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Mohammed Saeedi said on Wednesday that Qom’s main holy site, the Fatima Masumeh shrine, should be kept open as a “place of healing” and invited all to come “here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases.”

Dr. Khoshnood said it doesn’t matter if the place is a religious shrine, Iranians should not be in close proximity in large numbers during this time.

“That’s just not appropriate from a prevention point of view,” said Dr. Khoshnood, adding that this is the time to listen to public health officials.

The number of infections in Iran will likely increase following the delivery of hundreds of coronavirus testing kits from the World Health Organization.

“As the kits become more available in Iran, we will see more and more cases reported,” said Dr. Khoshnood.

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