Coronavirus: WHO calls outbreak ‘pandemic’ for first time

‘We cannot say this loudly enough . . . all countries can still change the course of this pandemic’

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreye at a press briefing on coronavirus. He announced the outbreak can now be called a pandemic. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreye at a press briefing on coronavirus. He announced the outbreak can now be called a pandemic. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty

 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic for the first time on Wednesday, adding that Italy and Iran were now on the frontline of the disease and other countries would soon join them.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that Covid-19 can be characterised as a pandemic,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.

He urged the global community to redouble efforts to contain the outbreak, saying aggressive measures could still play a big role to curb it.

“This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. This is the first pandemic that can be controlled,” he later tweeted.

While he acknowledged the characterisation did not change what WHO was doing or what countries needed to do, it sounded an alarm the organisation has not used so far as the virus spreads.

WHO officials have signalled for weeks that they may use the word “pandemic” as a descriptive term but have stressed that it does not carry legal significance. The WHO no longer has a category for declaring a pandemic, except for influenza. Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, is not the flu.

Global emergency

The illness, which emerged in China in December, has spread around the world, halting industry, bringing flights to a standstill, closing schools and forcing the postponement of sporting events and concerts.

The WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, its “highest level of alarm”, on January 30th when there were fewer than 100 cases of the disease outside China and eight cases of human-to-human transmission.

WHO health emergencies programme director Michael Ryan: ‘Italy and Iran are suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation very soon’. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty
WHO health emergencies programme director Michael Ryan: ‘Italy and Iran are suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation very soon’. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty

There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 people have died, the WHO director general said, with the numbers expected to climb.

In the past two weeks the number of cases outside China had risen 13-fold, and the number of countries affected had tripled, he added.

Dr Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies programme, said the situation in Iran was “very serious” and the agency would like to see more surveillance and more care for the sick.

“We need to move now. Italy and Iran are in the frontline now. They are suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation very soon,” he said.

Controllable

The Irish-born doctor said the experience with influenza led many people to the false conclusion that a pandemic was uncontrollable once it started. The experience of South Korea, Singapore, and China in combating the new virus showed this was not true, he said.

“We have observation that tells us that there is a strong element of controllability in this disease,” he told the news conference.

“That doesn’t mean we will completely stop it but what it does mean is there is a real chance to blunt the curve, there is a real chance to bend the curve and reduce the number of cases that our health system has to cope with and give the health system a chance to save more lives,” he said.

A masked boy walks past graffiti reading ‘2020 Fallas outfit. Coronavirus’. Authorities in Valencia, Spain, postponed the Fallas festival due to the outbreak. Spain now has over 2,000 confirmed cases. Photograph: Biel Alino/EPA

Dr Ryan said countries in the EU and western Europe need to review their control strategies. Positive diagnoses in Spain passed 2,000 on Wednesday, while cases in Denmark climbed to more than 500. Dr Ryan told the briefing: “Spain has a number of cases [that] have accelerated very, very quickly over the last couple of days, as have France, as has Norway, as has Denmark, and as have a number of European countries.

Denmark’s government announced it is closing down all state schools and requiring public-sector employees besides emergency workers to stay home.

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen said at an emergency press briefing convened late on Wednesday. “We’ve never tried anything like this before.” – Reuters