WHO expert: Discussions needed before Tokyo 2020

According to the WHO, the new coronavirus has spread to 162 countries and territories, with almost 180,000 cases, as of Tuesday. The organization has labeled the outbreak a "pandemic" and is calling on countries to take urgent and aggressive action.

NHK spoke to WHO expert Nahoko Shindo and asked her about the situation playing out around the world and if there is any possibility that this summer's Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games will go ahead.

"New phase"

Professor Nahoko Shindo is a senior advisor for the Infectious Hazards Management area of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme in Geneva. She says the coronavirus pandemic has entered a "new phase", one that has brought rapid geographical spread.

"The origins are undetected and found in Europe and the Middle East," she said. "That's when our organization reassessed the situation and characterized the epidemic as a pandemic."

Shindo says the outbreak in Italy has a high fatality rate.

Europe shuts down

In recent weeks, the European Union has become the center of the pandemic, with over 60,000 confirmed cases. On Tuesday, the bloc announced that most foreigners will be barred from entering member nations for the next 30 days. France has begun a nationwide lockdown, essentially forcing residents to stay at home for at least 15 days. While these measures may seem draconian, Shindo stressed that the WHO understands why the countries are taking such action.

The Champs-Elysees in Paris was empty Tuesday afternoon.

"In Italy, the case count is increasing rapidly and the fatality rate is very high," she said. "That is why the [European] countries are raising their guard to the maximum level and taking these drastic interventions.

"We have to leave the decision to each country," she said.

Japan holds up

Despite being one of the first countries to confirm cases of the coronavirus, Shindo says Japan has experienced a modest rate of increase. As of Wednesday, the number of those confirmed with the virus in the country was 868. This does not include the more than 700 people infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship or the dozen evacuated out of China on government-chartered planes. There have been 29 deaths, not counting 7 from the Diamond Princess. Over 670 people have recovered.

"Right after the Chinese Lunar New Year Festival, Japan received a considerable number of tourists from China," Shindo said. "But so far Japan has been doing well to control the outbreaks."

Tokyo 2020

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach says his organization will follow the WHO's recommendation on whether this summer's games can be held as planned.

IOC President Thomas Bach says the organization's top concern is "the health and well-being of all those involved in the preparations for the Tokyo Games."

Shindo did not say whether the WHO expects the Games to go ahead.

"All the efforts taken in Japan have been showing the world that it's doing its best to welcome the Olympic and Paralympic Games," she said. "However, the situation is not only for Japan but for the entire world."

She emphasized that mass gatherings, traffic, and travel create risks. All of these factors, she said, should be considered when finding the best solution for Japan, the athletes, and supporters from around the world.