Coronavirus Has Pandemic Potential But Isnt There Yet, WHO Says

Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organisation holds a chart about the COVID-19 outbreak during a briefing in Beijing, China, Monday. The WHO says the virus has not risen to the level of a pandemic.

Thomas Peter/Reuters


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Thomas Peter/Reuters

Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organisation holds a chart about the COVID-19 outbreak during a briefing in Beijing, China, Monday. The WHO says the virus has not risen to the level of a pandemic.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

COVID-19 could still become a pandemic, the World Health Organization’s Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday. But he added that while the respiratory virus’s outbreak hasn’t reached that alarming stage, people must be vigilant to contain a disease that has now been confirmed in 32 countries.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential?” Ghebreyesus asked at a WHO Geneva briefing Monday. “Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

The WHO director-general said his organization believes COVID-19 “peaked and plateaued” earlier this month in China, which had reported 77,262 cases as of midday Monday, ET.

Ghebreyesus spoke as concern over the novel coronavirus is reaching new heights due to rapid spikes in cases from South Korea to Iran and Italy. Fears that the virus could defy containment efforts and further cripple China’s huge economy also shook financial markets around the world Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling more than 900 points in the opening minutes of trading.

Ghebreyesus noted that the WHO has already declared COVID-19 to be a global health emergency, a step it took in late January as cases began to rise in China.

Health experts have been warning that a pandemic declaration could be looming, with the disease having spread to so many countries that it’s no longer possible to contain it.

“We need to start to shift our thinking from containment of the virus to risk mitigation,” Dirk Pfeiffer who studies emerging infectious diseases at the City University of Hong Kong, told NPR’s Jason Beaubien.

The new goal, Pfeiffer said, should be to minimize the coronavirus’s risk to the people who are most vulnerable to severe cases, similar to how influenza is treated.

But in his update on the current status of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ghebreyesus said there’s still a chance to prevent a pandemic – and that for now, the outbreak doesn’t fit the formal definition of a pandemic. For instance, he said, “WHO experts aren’t seeing an “uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.”

The fatality rate for the coronavirus is between 2% and 4% in Wuhan, China, where it was first identified, according to the WHO. Outside of the area of the epicenter, that figure drops to less than 1%. People with a mild case of the coronavirus recover from in about two weeks, the organization says.

A more accurate way to look at COVID-19 right now, Ghebreyesus said, is to view it as causing a number of individual epidemics in several countries. Each of those epidemics are different and require their own unique responses, he said. And he reiterated his call to spread facts, not fear.

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

Urging governments and regular citizens alike to focus on preventing further infections, Ghebreyesus added, “We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic.”