What WHO calling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic means

The organization is asking countries to double down on containment and mitigation efforts

people in clean suits spraying a subway tunnel

Workers in South Korea, which has been hit hard by COVID-19, disinfect a subway station in Seoul to slow the virus’s spread.

NEWSIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Given its spread and rapidly growing impact, the coronavirus outbreak is now considered a pandemic, the World Health Organization announced March 11 in a news conference. So far, the virus has reached at least 114 countries, killed over 4,000 people and infected at least 120,000.

The situation is likely to get worse before it improves. “We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the news conference.

The WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency in late January, but declined to describe COVID-19 as a pandemic until now. “Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit,” Ghebreyesus said in a news conference February 26. “But it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems.” That sentiment, as well as a desire to emphasize the possibility of containing the virus once it enters a country, kept the WHO from describing COVID-19 a pandemic until now.

A pandemic differs from an epidemic in the scope of its spread. Epidemics are large outbreaks of a new disease confined to a specific region, such as in the early days of COVID-19 when cases were largely centered in China. An epidemic becomes a pandemic when multiple outbreaks persist on multiple continents, sustained by widespread human-to-human transmission that can’t be traced back to the country where the outbreak began (SN: 2/25/20).

The last time that the WHO used the word pandemic to describe a rapidly spreading virus was in 2009, for a then-novel H1N1 strain of influenza, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in its first year and is now part of the group of annually circulating influenza viruses (SN: 3/26/10). A pandemic has never been sparked by a coronavirus before.

The traditional view is that epidemics are still containable, while pandemics are not. “We have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled,” Ghebreyesus said on March 11.

But the WHO says that this situation is different. The organization emphasized that this shift in language doesn’t reflect a change in their thinking about the threat posed by COVID-19, nor does it change their response. “We are not suggesting to shift from containment to mitigation,” Ghebreyesus said, emphasizing that countries can do both. But he says the change in language should be taken as a signal to double down on efforts to contain the virus and mitigate its spread. Such efforts, experts say, can prevent huge spikes in cases that overwhelm health systems.

“Countries must take a whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach, built around a comprehensive strategy to prevent infections, save lives and minimize impact,” Ghebreyesus said. “We’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.”

Jonathan Lambert is the staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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