The World Health Organisation has urged countries not to reimpose national lockdowns in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19 due to social and economic repercussions.
In an exclusive interview, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, who helps lead the WHO’s pandemic response team as the head of the emerging diseases unit, said countries should instead adopt localised strategies.
By the end of March, as the outbreak spiralled out of control across the globe, well over 100 countries had imposed a full or partial lockdown, affecting billions of people. Van Kerkhove described these measures as a “blunt, sheer-force instrument” that bought countries time to build the infrastructure needed to tackle Covid-19. But reflecting on events since the WHO declared a global health emergency six months ago – when fewer than 8,000 cases and 170 deaths had been reported – she added that the economic, health and social costs of lockdown have been “massive”.
“Lockdowns are not something that WHO recommended, but they needed to be used in a number of countries because the outbreaks were growing so quickly,” Van Kerkhove said. “But we’re hopeful countries will not need national lockdowns again.”
The 43-year-old, who has become a familiar face, having appeared alongside WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at press briefings, added that countries should not rely on a jab as a silver bullet to bring the raging pandemic to a close.
“In the next six months we will not have a vaccine,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of work that’s being accelerated in terms of having a safe vaccine, but we cannot wait until  for one to come around.”
Instead, Van Kerkhove urged countries to use the tools available to adopt a “tailored, specific, localised” approach to contain new clusters of infections.
“The speed of the science on this has been extraordinary … we have tools right now that can prevent transmission and save lives,” Van Kerkhove said, referring to measures including tracing, widespread testing, equipping health facilities, physical distancing and wearing masks. “It isn’t one measure alone, all of the existing measures need to be used together. And it works. The reason we keep saying that it works is because we’ve seen this happen, we have seen countries bring these outbreaks under control.”
It is seven months since Van Kerkhove – who has spent decades training as an epidemiologist – received an e-mail alert that a “pneumonia of unknown origin” had been detected in Wuhan, China. “I was on holiday for Christmas with my family in the US,” the mother of two said from her office at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “I sent a note back asking some questions, which I always do … we always push countries for more info. China is not unique to that.
“My initial feeling was that this could be localised, that this would be localised. But I’m trained to think that this is an emerging infectious disease … so I definitely knew it could get bigger, and planned for that.”
Since then the scenarios Van Kerhove’s team prepared for but dreaded have been realised. The pandemic has spiralled out of control, with infections surpassing 17.6 million and deaths 680,000, not to mention social and economic reverberations. And the epidemiologist has been thrown into the limelight, fielding hundreds of questions from journalists and the public at virtual briefings.
Though praised in January when she was one of the first WHO officials to raise the alarm about potential human-to-human transmission, comments that appeared to suggest asymptomatic spread is rare provoked criticism in June – though Van Kerkhove maintains that much of the reporting misunderstood her words.
“I watched videos of myself making a statement, and then some newscaster saying: ‘WHO says asymptomatic transmission doesn’t happen’, which I’ve never said, which WHO has never said. It was a challenge, I had never been the brunt of such criticism.“
Her colleagues, husband and two children, aged nine and one, kept her going. “My nine-year-old drew rainbows for everybody at the office because he wanted everyone to know that we were doing a good job. I’m inspired by acts of kindness.”
The epidemiologist is not the only member of the team to attract criticism. Donald Trump has consistently accused the WHO of being “China-centric”, a claim most public health experts have dismissed as “scapegoating”. The fallout came to a head when the Trump administration formally withdrew from the WHO. Van Kerkhove said she was “disappointed” by the decision, but insisted that the worsening US situation could still be rectified.
Her biggest fear is complacency: “This is a wake-up call about pandemics and we must do more to be ready. It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when something like this will happen again. It’s quite traumatic what everyone is going through; we need to use this as a way to accelerate the change that is necessary.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2020)