The WHO still isn’t describing covid-19 as a pandemic

The world must prepare for a potential coronavirus pandemic, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva, Switzerland today, Tedros Ghebreyesus said the spread of the covid-19 virus around the world is not yet at pandemic stage but acknowledged it has the potential to become one.

“The sudden increases of cases in Italy, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Korea are deeply concerning,” Ghebreyesus said. “There’s a lot of speculation about whether these increases mean that this epidemic has now become a pandemic.”

The WHO no longer uses an official scale to declare a pandemic, although spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the PA news agency it will start to use the term in communications if it believes a pandemic is reached.

“Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society,” Ghebreyesus said.

“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death,” he added. “Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear,” he added.

“We must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.”

“We already have a covid-19 epidemic in China and, more recently, large outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Italy,” Mark Woolhouse told the Science Media Centre in London today. “If those outbreaks cannot be brought under control, then covid-19 would fit the criteria of a pandemic.”

“We now consider this to be a pandemic in all but name,” Bharat Pankhania, at the University of Exeter Medical School told the Science Media Centre.

Cases slow in China

Ghebreyesus said the WHO was “encouraged by the continued decline in cases in China”, though more 77,000 cases have been declared there, including 2618 deaths.

A specialist team sent to China found that the epidemic peaked and plateaued between January 23 and February 2, and has since been declining steadily, he said.

Ghebreyesus added that the death rate is between 2 per cent and 4 per cent in Wuhan city, where the virus originated, and 0.7 per cent outside Wuhan.

For people with mild disease, recovery time is about two weeks, while people with severe or critical disease recover within three to six weeks.

Outside China, there are now 2074 cases confirmed in 28 countries, and 23 deaths, including a rapid rise in cases in Italy, South Korea and Iran.

UK preparations

In Italy, around 50,000 people are affected by a lockdown in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, after the country reported more than 160 cases – the largest number in Europe.

In the UK, 13 people have been diagnosed with covid-19, including four over the weekend who had been on the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was held in quarantine in Japan.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “we are well prepared for UK cases, we are using tried and tested procedures to prevent further spread and the NHS is extremely well prepared and used to managing infections.”

“In the UK, there’s no need to move towards mitigation strategies, as so far our containment policies are working,” said Pankhania.

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