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COVID-19 (coronavirus disease)

MSF is currently responding to the new disease in Italy and Hong Kong

COVID-19 is a new viral disease that affects the respiratory system

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020. More than 100 countries are now reporting cases.

MSF's response to coronavirus in Italy

We are supporting four hospitals in Italy as the country responds to a large outbreak of COVID-19. 

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The current MSF team consists of about a dozen people, including Italian infectious disease specialists, anesthesiologists, nurses and logisticians, who are contributing their experience in managing epidemics in the countries where MSF works. 

The team is supporting infection prevention and control activities in these facilities, as well as doctors and nurses caring for patients who have been hospitalised with coronavirus and need treatment.

more on covid-19 in Italy >

MSF's response to coronavirus in France

In consultation with France’s health authorities, MSF is setting up activities to help detect and manage COVID-19 cases among the most vulnerable populations in Paris and the surrounding region.

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Roughly 80 percent of confirmed cases of COVID-19 experience a mild respiratory illness but it has a higher rate of severe complications for vulnerable people – such as the elderly and people with compromised immune systems than other viruses such as flu. 

MSF's response to coronavirus in Greece

From what we know, there has not been a confirmed case of COVID-19 among asylum seekers trapped on the Greek islands.

However, asylum seekers in camps such as Moria are very vulnerable to an outbreak of the new coronavirus as they are forced to live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions that facilitate the spread of disease.

More on covid-19 in Greece >

Precarious situations

The high level of supportive and intensive care required has placed a heavy burden on some of the world’s most advanced healthcare systems.  

Given this is a pandemic, MSF’s ability to respond on the scale required will be limited, but we are currently responding in Italy and Hong Kong.

We are deeply concerned about how COVID-19 might affect people living in precarious environments such as the homeless, those living in refugee camps in Greece or Bangladesh, or conflict-affected groups in Yemen or Syria.

We must do everything to prevent and delay further spreading of the virus. We know from our experience that trust in the response and health authorities is an essential component for outbreak control.

Clear, timely and honest communication and guidance are needed. People need to be empowered to protect themselves. 

MSF and COVID-19

What is the new coronavirus disease?

COVID-19 (short for "coronavirus disease") is caused by a virus discovered in early January in China. It appears to be transmitted through droplets spread by coughing.

The virus affects the respiratory system. The main symptoms include general weakness and fever; coughing; and in later stages sometimes pneumonia and difficulty breathing.

Identified by Chinese scientists, the virus is now called SARS-CoV-2 because of its similarities to the virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, most of which are harmless to humans. Four types are known to cause colds, while two other types can cause severe lung infections (SARS and MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), similar to COVID-19.

Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 needs the cells of living beings to multiply. This virus seems to target cells in the lungs and possibly other cells in the respiratory system, too.

Cells infected by the virus will produce more virus particles, which can then spread to other people, by coughing for instance.

How is MSF responding?

COVID-19 preparation

Protecting patients and healthcare workers is essential, so our medical teams are preparing for potential cases of COVID-19 in our projects.

In places where there is a higher chance of cases, this means ensuring infection control measures are in place, setting up screening at triage, isolation areas, and health education.

In most countries where MSF works, we are coordinating with the WHO and Ministries of Health to see how MSF can help in case of a high load of COVID-19 patients and are providing training on infection control for health facilities.

COVID-19 response

In the week beginning 9 March in Italy, which is now the second-most affected country after China, MSF began supporting four hospitals in the epicentre of the outbreak with infection control, as well as patient care.

In Hong Kong, our health education and mental health support continues for vulnerable groups.

In Iran, MSF has submitted a proposal to the authorities to help to care for patients with COVID-19.

Whether we’ll be able to make similar offers to other countries will depend on the nature of the outbreak but also on our capacity to deploy.

Pre-existing projects

On any given day we are treating hundreds of thousands of patients for a variety of illnesses. We need to ensure we can continue to provide adequate and life-saving medical care in our ongoing projects.

This is challenging because current travel restrictions are limiting our ability to move staff between different countries.

Establishing future supplies of certain key items, such as surgical masks, swabs, gloves and chemicals for diagnosis of COVID-19 is also of concern.

There is a risk of supply shortages due to lack of production of generic drugs and difficulties to import essential drugs (such as antibiotics and antiretroviral drugs) due to lockdowns, reduced production of basic products, exportation stops or repurposing/stocking of drugs and material for COVID-19.

What needs to be done?

We must do everything to prevent and delay further spreading of the virus. It is already straining some of the world’s most advanced healthcare systems.

Access to healthcare

Preserving access to healthcare, both for COVID-19 patients as well as for any other patient, is paramount. This means ensuring that hospitals don’t become overwhelmed and that health staff can cope with the number of patients requiring intensive care and continue providing treatment to other patients who need it too.

Protecting healthcare staff

Infections of healthcare staff can happen easily in places that are overwhelmed by large numbers of patients. Places dealing with limited supplies of personal protective equipment for staff and a probable reduced workforce (as healthcare staff will also be part of confirmed cases through transmission in the community) are also at risk.

Infected healthcare staff will further reduce the capacity to admit and treat patients. Safety for healthcare workers should be a top priority in every healthcare facility.

Ensuring trust

We know from our experience that trust in the response and in health authorities is an essential component for outbreak control. Clear, timely, measured and honest communication and guidance is needed. People need to be empowered to protect themselves.

To ensure that the medical tools urgently needed to respond to COVID-19 are accessible, affordable, and available concerned stakeholders including governments, pharmaceutical corporations and other research organisations developing treatments, diagnostics, and vaccines should take the necessary measures to:

  • prevent patents and monopolies from limiting production and affordable access;
  • guarantee access to repurposed drugs for patients suffering from disease;
  • prioritise the availability of the medical tools for protection and treatment of frontline healthcare workers; and
  • improve transparency and coordination, making sure an evidence-based approach is put in place to continuously monitor the risk of the potential supply chain vulnerability on essential medical tools

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