WHO says countries complaining about coronavirus contract tracking are "lame"

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The head of the World Health Organization on Monday dismissed complaints from countries complaining that contact tracking is too difficult to implement as a control strategy for the coronavirus pandemic as "lame."

The UN health agency has repeatedly warned countries that closing their COVID-19 outbreaks requires having a contact tracking program, a labor-intensive process to locate contacts of people with coronavirus to ensure that those in risk be isolated.

In recent months, countries with large COVID-19 outbreaks, including Britain and the United States, have said that there are simply too many contacts to track down an effective system.

Britain had promised to have a "world-class" contact tracking system earlier this month. But the UK eventually abandoned the digital app it developed for that purpose, and politicians have acknowledged that the program is not yet running in full force despite recruiting thousands of workers. In recent weeks, British health officials have said that their contact trackers do not reach close to a quarter of people with the virus, leaving thousands of people free to transmit COVID-19.

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At a press conference on Monday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed to his director of emergencies, Dr. Michael Ryan, as an example of someone willing to do everything possible to trace contacts, citing the work Ryan, while wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest – during an Ebola outbreak in a part of Congo where armed groups attacked and killed health workers.

"He believed he had to do everything possible to stop Ebola and demonstrate that saving lives actually requires that level of commitment," said Tedros.

Tedros said it was not acceptable for some countries to claim that there were too many contacts to trace and that the process itself was too difficult. Previously, he praised the follow-up programs adopted by countries such as South Korea, Singapore and China, which involved teams of health workers who tracked tens of thousands of people and made sure that those exposed to the virus were isolated.

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Tedros said that countries with sufficient resources that are not fighting wars have few excuses for not doing good contact tracing.

"If contact tracing helps you win the fight, you do it, even [when] you risk your life," he said. "If any country says contact tracing is difficult, it's an unconvincing excuse."

He noted that it would be six months on Tuesday since China first reported to the WHO an unusual group of cases of pneumonia, the first sign of the appearance of coronavirus. Since then, the disease has sickened more than 10 million people and killed some 500,000.

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WHO said the pandemic was "accelerating", particularly in the Americas.

"The harsh reality is that this is not even close to ending," said Tedros. "The worst is yet to come."

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