This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing Tuesday, referencing other coronaviruses that have caused smaller outbreaks. “It is a unique virus with unique characteristics.” 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

By making a distinction between the viruses, Tedros has sought to rally global action against the new microbe. He and other WHO officials urged governments confronting the coronavirus to implement the public health measures that have been shown to reduce viral spread, such as isolating infected people, following those who come in contact with cases to see whether they develop illness, and suspending activities that bring together lots of people.

“We don’t even talk about containment for seasonal flu — it’s just not possible,” Tedros said. “But it is possible for Covid-19. We don’t do contact-tracing for seasonal flu — but countries should do it for Covid-19, because it will prevent infections and save lives. Containment is possible.”
“We believe this decline is real,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO coronavirus expert. And with such interventions, she said, “we believe that this is possible in other countries,” including in Iran, Italy, and South Korea, where cases have been increasing most dramatically.
Tuesday’s briefing with reporters marked the second day in a row WHO officials pressed the flu comparison as a way to call for action, which they said is all the more important because there are no approved vaccines or therapies for the coronavirus, as there are for flu.

On Monday, Tedros said, “We have never seen before a respiratory pathogen that’s capable of community transmission but at the same time which can also be contained with the right measures. If this was an influenza epidemic, we would have expected to see widespread community transmission across the globe by now and efforts to slow it down or contain it would not be feasible.”