GENEVA — The World Health Organization took the drastic step on Wednesday of declaring COVID-19 as a global pandemic — the worldwide spread of a new disease — marking the first time a coronavirus has gained that distinction.
Alarmed at the fast-spreading rate of infections and slow government reactions, the U.N. health agency for the first time acknowledged that global outbreak is a pandemic, a politically charged word in some circles, as a way of prodding countries dragging their feet into swift, efficient action.
“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity — and by the alarming levels of inaction,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing.
“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” he said. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”
Pointing to more than 118,000 confirmed cases and nearly 4,300 deaths among 114 countries, Tedros, a politician and public health expert who has headed Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, emphasized that calling it a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat or what it does in response — or what nations should do to be safe.
“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. And we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled at the same time,” he said. “WHO has been in full response mode since we were notified of the first cases.”
WHO described Italy and Iran as the new front lines in the fight to stop a killer virus first detected in Wuhan, China in late December. “They’re suffering, but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief.
Ryan said the U.N. agency took a while to come around to the idea that the global coronavirus outbreak should be labeled a pandemic, partly because of the risk that governments and people might “use it as an excuse to give up.”
By contrast, WHO meant for the designation to wake people up. For days now, the agency has been calling on nations to take urgent and aggressive action, Tedros said, and “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response.”
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— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) March 11, 2020
Second pandemic of the 21st century
The H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, was the first pandemic of the 21st century, infecting 1-in-5 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010. It also was the first pandemic for which many of WHO’s member nations had developed comprehensive pandemic describing the public health measures to be taken to reduce illness and fatalities, according to the U.N. agency.
And for the first time, pandemic vaccine was developed, produced and deployed in multiple countries during the first year of the pandemic. But while most cases of pandemic H1N1 were mild, globally it caused up to 575,400 deaths, including 400,000 in the first year alone.
Children and young adults were disproportionately affected compared to seasonal influenza, which causes severe disease mainly in the elderly, people with chronic conditions and pregnant women.
In the 20th century, three influenza pandemics occurred. The most severe was the “Spanish flu,” also caused by H1N1 virus. It was estimated to have caused up to 50 million deaths worldwide from 1918 to 1919. An “Asian flu” pandemic caused by H2N2 virus from 1957 to 1958 and a “Hong Kong flu” caused by H3N2 virus in 1968 were estimated to have caused up to 4 million deaths each.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.