- Scientists say the novel coronavirus that has so far killed more than 3,000 people and infected more than 89,250 others could soon become a pandemic.
- The World Health Organisation defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease” – but says the novel coronavirus doesn’t meet its criteria yet.
- A pandemic is also defined by a lack of available treatment, a lack of human immunity, and an ability to spread from person to person.
- The novel coronavirus is “very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told The New York Times.
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Scientists and disease experts say the novel coronavirus outbreak could soon be declared a pandemic, but it isn’t yet.
The World Health Organisation last month designated the novel coronavirus – the scientific name is 2019-nCoV – a “public-health emergency of international concern.” Calling the virus a pandemic would take it to a new level, however, since that term refers to a more global outbreak.
The illness caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is “very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the US’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told The New York Times.
Here are the criteria for a virus to be labelled a pandemic:
- The WHO defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.”
- A pandemic disease spreads across “several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people,” according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
- A viral outbreak could be characterised as a pandemic if it is “markedly different from recently circulating strains” and if “humans have little or no immunity” to it, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.
- A disease becomes a pandemic when it can infect many people over a large area, be transferred from person to person, and cause clinical illness, the HSE said.
There is no strict rule for declaring the coronavirus a pandemic
Global health experts at the WHO have said that because containment measures have worked well in China and other spots around the globe where the disease has spread, COVID-19 isn’t being called a pandemic just yet. That could change soon if more containment measures were to fail.
“WHO will not hesitate to describe this as a pandemic if that’s what the evidence suggests,” the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told reporters in Geneva on Monday. “If this was an influenza epidemic, we would have expected to see widespread community transmission across the globe by now, and efforts to slow it down or contain it would not be feasible. But containment of COVID-19 is feasible, and must remain the top priority for all countries.”
So far, nearly 100 people in the US have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and six people in that country have died. The virus is also spreading rapidly in Iran and South Korea.
“There’s no numerical definition of a pandemic – like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, previously told Business Insider.
An epidemic, by contrast, refers to a more localised or regional outbreak rather than a global one. That’s what health agencies have so far considered the coronavirus outbreak to be.
The CDC says an epidemic is an “increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”
Similarly, the WHO defines an epidemic as the “occurrence in a community or region of cases of an illness, specific health-related behaviour, or other health-related events clearly in excess of normal expectancy.”
Dr. Thomas Frieden, a former CDC director, told reporters on Monday that “this is an unprecedented situation.”
“Never before have we had a new pathogen emerge and then cause global spread like this,” Frieden said. “That’s scary. It’s new. It’s something that has the ability to cause enormous social and economic disruption. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s still so new that there’s a lot we don’t know yet. And one of the things that we fundamentally don’t know is how bad this is going to be.”
Robert Webster, an infectious-disease expert at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, recently told Business Insider that he hoped some of the same strategies that worked well during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 would help prevent COVID-19 from spreading further out of control, too.
“Straight hygiene,” Webster said. “Washing your hands, not sneezing, and just cleaning up.”
COVID-19 has killed more than 3,000 people and infected more than 89,000 others in more than 65 countries since the first cases of the illness were reported in December.
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