WHO Declines to Declare Spread of Coronavirus a Pandemic

February 24, 2020 Updated: February 24, 2020

The spread of the new coronavirus hasn’t met the level of a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday even as the number of cases and deaths continued rising sharply in Iran, South Korea, and Italy.

The “sudden increase” in cases in those three countries are “deeply concerning,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva, but said that experts at the agency have decided against describing the situation as a “pandemic.”

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet,” he said.

“Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it certainly may cause fear.”

There are epidemics of the new virus in multiple countries, Tedros said.

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World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference in Geneva on Feb. 24, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

WHO, an international agency that is supporting countries in trying to combat the new virus, declared a public health emergency of international concern in late January after cases were confirmed among patients with no history of travel to China, where the virus emerged in December 2019. The global emergency is defined as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.” A pandemic “refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top official at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said during an appearance on CNN over the weekend that a pandemic features consistent, sustained person-to-person transmission in different places around the world.

“We are clearly at the brink of that,” he said.

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Italian soldiers patrol by a check-point at the entrance of the small town of Vo Vecchio, situated in the red zone of the COVID-19 the novel coronavirus outbreak, northern Italy, on Feb. 24, 2020. (Marco Sabadin/AFP via Getty Images)

As of Monday, there were 2,074 cases of COVID-19 caused by the new virus in 28 countries outside China. Twenty-three people died outside China from the disease, a number that’s quickly rising.

In addition to the spike in cases in Iran, South Korea, and Italy, some half-a-dozen countries in the Middle East reported cases on Monday. Many of the cases were the first confirmed in those countries.

“Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society,” Tedros told reporters in Geneva.

“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this coronavirus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.”

Medical workers wearing protective gears
Medical workers wearing protective gear carry a patient suspected of contracting the new coronavirus toward an ambulance at Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, South Korea on Feb. 21, 2020. (Lee Moo-ryul/Newsis via AP)

Nations, groups, and people should focus on trying to contain the virus but still must prepare for the possibility of a pandemic, he added.

Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies program director, told reporters that the word pandemic refers to the belief that the whole world’s population would likely be exposed to the new virus, with a portion getting infected.

Pandemics of influenza can sometimes be called a lot earlier because the world has seen them before, he said.

“It’s much easier to say a pandemic will occur in an influenza situation. What we don’t understand yet in COVID-19 are the absolute transmission dynamics,” he said, citing figures from the Chinese Communist Party—which are widely questioned by experts—that claim the number of cases in China are falling.

The news conference came after a study estimated that two-thirds of the virus carriers from China went undetected by the countries where they traveled.

Researchers at the Imperial College London, analyzing flight data from Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, concluded that “some countries have detected significantly fewer than would have been expected based on the volume of flight passengers arriving from Wuhan.”

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