The World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on 11 March 2020. With more than 118,000 cases in over 110 countries, WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted that he was “deeply concerned by alarming levels of spread and inaction” over the virus. He further states that the WHO have been assessing the outbreak around the clock and have thus characterised it to be a pandemic.
According to the WHO, a pandemic phase is a “period of global spread of human influenza caused by a new subtype based on global surveillance.” Pandemics are also used when ongoing person-to-person spread is prevalent in multiple countries. As the disease is new and most people are not immune to it, the disease is able to spread beyond normal expectations. Dr Tedros further went on to explain, in his statement, that a pandemic is a word not used lightly as it may cause unreasonable fear if misused.
Dr Vidya Mony pointed out that the last pandemic was the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, and neither SARS or Ebola qualified as a pandemic, despite differing severity and death rates. While Dr Tedros stressed that labelling the new virus a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat. This meant that the WHO was not about to change its advice on what countries should do however, he stressed that governments should take “urgent and aggressive action”.
Up until now, the virus has merely been talked as having a “potential” for a pandemic. However, due to the increasing number of cases and it not being linked to travel, the virus would be better characterised as a pandemic. Dr Carl Fichtenbaum of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine highlighted that healthcare facilities should begin to plan where they will care for people with the virus, who would be tested, and criteria they would use to decide further steps.
Dr Tedros also stated that the WHO “encourage every country to review WHO’s disease commodity package for covid19 to ensure it has the supplies it needs, including protective equipment and medical devices.” The WHO has also developed a list of over 20 essential medical devices to manage covid-19 patients.
He added that countries should be activating and scaling up emergency response mechanisms, whilst communicating with people about the risks and how to protect themselves. He also indicated that each country should find, isolate, test and treat each case, tracing all contact they have had.
Being called a pandemic does not mean that the virus cannot be controlled, WHO explains. As there is no vaccine or treatment yet, containing the spread is vital.
Dr Tedros stated that “we cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough – all countries can change the course of this pandemic”.
Regardless of whether the new virus is declared a pandemic or not, Gostin reminds us that “it’s important not to panic”.
Last modified: 16th March 2020