WHO calls COVID-19 a global pandemic

The U.N. agency’s use of the term points to the uncontrolled spread of this disease

global coronavirus

Artist’s depiction of how the new coronavirus, which emerged in China last December, has rapidly spread to nations across the globe. At present count, the virus has infected people in 114 nations and is now termed a “pandemic.”

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As of March 11, the COVID-19 outbreak has spread to at least 120,000 people across at least 114 nations. The coronavirus responsible — SARS-CoV-2 — continues to spread fast and in an uncontrolled way. Today, that led the World Health Organization, or WHO, to start referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic. Since first identified in December, this disease has killed more than 4,000 people.

Given how far the virus has spread and its devastating global impacts, “we have made the assessment that COVID-19 can be described as a pandemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He is Director-General of WHO, a United Nations agency. It is based in Geneva, Switzerland. At a news conference today, Ghebreyesus said, “We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries to climb even higher.” 

In late January, his agency had declared the outbreak a public health emergency. “Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit,” Ghebreyesus said in a news conference on February 26. But that term “does have significant risk,” he said at the time. It can boost unjustified fears and stigma, he said. And that explains why WHO had until now not called COVID-19 a pandemic. WHO also had hoped that calling it merely an epidemic might emphasize that nations still could be able to “contain” the virus once it reaches a new country.

A pandemic differs from an epidemic in its spread. Epidemics are large outbreaks of a disease within a specific region. That term certainly fit in the early days of COVID-19 when cases were largely found in China. An epidemic morphs into a pandemic when multiple outbreaks persist on multiple continents. These outbreaks also must be sustained by wide person-to-person spread that can’t be traced back to the country in which the outbreak began. 

The last time WHO used the word pandemic was in 2009. That’s when a novel H1N1 strain of influenza swept across the globe. It killed hundreds of thousands in its first year. That germ has since become part of the group of flu viruses that move through human populations each year.

The traditional view is that epidemics are containable while pandemics are not. COVID-19 is different. “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” Ghebreyesus said. What’s more, he noted, “We have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled.” 

His agency’s shift to calling it a pandemic does not point to a change in thinking about the threat posed by COVID-19, he said. Nor does it change how health departments must attack it. “We are not suggesting to shift from containment,” essentially giving up on trying to control it, Ghebreyesus said. No, those efforts must continue. At the same time, he said, countries must work doubly hard on slowing its spread.

Countries must take a “whole-of-society approach,” Ghebreyesus said. These efforts, he added, must strive at once to “prevent infections, save lives and minimize impact.”

“We’re in this together,” he said, “to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.”

Jonathan Lambert is the staff writer for biological sciences at Science News, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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