The World Health Organization (WHO) classified COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a global pandemic in a press conference on Wednesday.
WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that the number of infected people outside of China increasing tenfold — along with the number of countries with cases tripling — over the past two weeks, prompted the decision.
The WHO has not declared a pandemic in almost 11 years, since it designated the H1N1 strain of influenza a pandemic in 2009.
“In the days and weeks ahead we expect to see the number of cases, number of deaths, and number of affected countries climb even higher,” Ghebreyesus said. “WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels and the severity, and the alarming levels of inaction. Therefore we have made the assessment that COVID-19 can be categorized as a pandemic.”
According to Ghebreyesus, there are now around 118,000 cases in 114 countries, with 4,291 fatalities caused by the illness.
Ghebreyesus explained that labeling a disease a “pandemic” is something that should not be used carelessly or misused. He said that this is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.
“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by the virus,” Ghebreyesus said. “It doesn’t change what the WHO is doing and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”
He said that 90% of the cases of COVID-19 are housed in four countries, with two of those countries — The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea — seeing a significant decline in recent weeks. He added that “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic.”
“If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in their response; those with the handful of cases can prevent those cases from becoming clusters and those clusters becoming community transmission,” Ghebreyesus said. “Even those with community transmission or larger clusters can turn the tide on this virus.”
WHO Executive Director Dr. Michael Ryan advised that decisions to close down institutions such as schools should be based on the government’s assessment of their country’s epidemic. He said the most effective method is to take immediate public health action to reduce spread.
In the United States, several schools and universities have already closed. The State University of New York (SUNY) system announced today that it is implementing remote learning to contain the possible spread of coronavirus after the confirmed cases in New York rose to 216.
“When people move towards broader-based social distancing measures it effectively accepts that the chains of transmission are no longer visible; so you want to separate everybody because you don’t know who’s infected,” Ryan explained. “It is a poor substitute for aggressive public health action at the beginning, but it may be the only option when you’ve effectively lost sight of the virus.”