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Coronavirus outbreak already at pandemic levels, Israeli health official warns

Health Ministry’s Asher Shalmon says situation around the world points to an emerging ‘full-blown international event,’ says vaccine a year away despite claims

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A monitor displays world-wide statistics relating to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus during a visit of Vice President Mike Pence to the Washington State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, March 5, 2020 at Camp Murray in Washington state. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
A monitor displays world-wide statistics relating to the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus during a visit of Vice President Mike Pence to the Washington State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, March 5, 2020 at Camp Murray in Washington state. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

The novel coronavirus spreading across the world is already at a “pandemic” stage, a top Israeli health official said Thursday, though world health authorities have held off from declaring a global outbreak.

“Although officially the World Health Organization has not yet declared a pandemic, we do feel we are at a pandemic stage,” Dr. Asher Shalmon, the Health Ministry’s director of international relations, said Thursday.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 98,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,300, the vast majority of them in China. Cases have been reported in 80 countries and in recent days, more people outside China have been falling ill than inside the country, where the virus is on the decline.

Shalmon said he believes that the situation around the world points to an emerging “full-blown international event.”

Dr. Asher Shalmon (Courtesy)

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that the body is not declaring the outbreak a pandemic because the cases still appear to be traceable, and the virus is not yet “spreading freely in communities.”

But he also said he would not hesitate to use the pandemic label if the evidence backs it up.

On Tuesday, a top CDC health official in the US told a Senate committee that the WHO could soon declare the virus outbreak a pandemic.

“If sustained person-to-person spread in the community takes hold outside China, this will increase the likelihood that the WHO will deem it a global pandemic,” Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said, according to NBC News.

South Korean soldiers wearing protective gears walk to spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Israel has closed its borders to foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries, just weeks before an expected influx for Passover and Easter.

Shalmon said that his ministry is “quite worried” about the impact the restrictions will have on Israel’s tourism industry, but said it is a necessary precaution.

“The closure is bad but we are afraid that the alternative is worse,” he said at a press briefing,

“If the crisis will be over in a few weeks it will be a blow but we will recover quite quickly,” he said of the possible economic impact of the virus and restrictions on daily life. “If it’s going to be a big issue of many months or a year or so, then I think the whole world will be in a major depression.”

Empty departure halls at Ben Gurion Airport. on March 4, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Shalmon said he expects a vaccine to take at least a year, pouring cold water on claims that Israelis were racing ahead with a cure. A Science Ministry press release claiming that the state-funded Galilee Research Institute was three months away from a vaccine had made headlines last week, but Shalmon said people should not place “false hopes” in it.

Earlier in the day, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Israel was attempting to minimize diplomatic harm while still protecting itself.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz attends a Likud party rally, ahead of the Israeli general elections, in the Northern Israeli town of Safed, February 24, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

“We are talking with leaders and explaining to them the Israeli point of view,” Katz told the Kan public broadcaster. “We are on the verge of an outbreak that we won’t be able to control, and then the whole way of life in Israel will change.”

So far, 17 Israelis in the country have the disease, according to the Health Ministry, which on Wednesday dramatically ratcheted up restrictions, requiring those coming from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland to self-quarantine for 14 days. It also banned large gathering and placed restrictions on other Israelis who may have contact with people abroad.

Shalmon confirmed that some 50,000 had been put under lock-down by the directives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a namaste gesture toward Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov during a press conference with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (right) on the new coronavirus, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Friday morning, Israel is set to begin restricting the entry of non-nationals coming from the European countries, though officials have indicated it could let people in if they prove they have a place to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Someone coming to a wedding in Israel and not making sure they were clean of the virus would be a serious liability, he warned.

“We would usually suggest that such a person be out of one of the indicated countries for at least 14 days before the wedding, or if he could come here and if he has a proper facility he could be under quarantine in Israel before the wedding,” he said.

“What we certainly do not want to happen is that somebody would come, say from Milan, join a wedding of 800 people, and that could be a real threat.”

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