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 the 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 the virus since it was 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.
China reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan to WHO officials on December 31. In response, WHO set up an Incident Management Support Team on New Year’s Day, “putting the organization on an emergency footing for dealing with the outbreak,” according to a WHO timeline of events.
Within days, WHO reported the cluster of supposed pneumonia cases on social media and published its first Disease Outbreak News on the new virus. The technical publication was intended for the scientific and public health community and global news media.
However, Ryan said the United Nations health agency took a while to come around to the idea that the global coronavirus outbreak should be called a pandemic partly because of a perceived risk that governments and people might “use it as an excuse to give up.”
On the contrary, WHO said the designation was meant to wake people up to the grave risks. 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.”
🚨 BREAKING 🚨
— 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 a decade ago. It also was the first pandemic for which many of WHO’s 194 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, a vaccine was developed, produced and used in multiple countries during the first year of that pandemic. But while most cases of pandemic H1N1 were mild, globally it caused an estimated death toll of between 151,700 to 575,400. That outbreak was declared a pandemic in June 2009 and generally thought to be ended by August 2010.
Children and young adults were disproportionately affected compared in comparison 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 have 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.