The World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, with 114 countries reporting combined cases that added up to nearly 120,000.
“In the days and weeks ahead we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries to climb even higher,” WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing in Geneva.
“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” he said.
“We have therefore made the assessment that [the disease] Covid-19 can be characterised as a pandemic,” the director general said, referring to the illness caused by the new coronavirus that began spreading globally in January.
Adoption of the new terminology comes as the US, Britain and other countries with rising case counts struggle to come up with emergency responses to the contagion – which causes the potentially deadly respiratory ailment – in the form of stimulus packages and other economic measures.
WHO officials cautioned countries to step up containment efforts to prevent Covid-19 from overburdening health care workers.
Tedros’ statement “is not an escape clause to mitigation”, Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme, said in the briefing, referring to the stage when public health authorities give up on containment efforts.
“It is not the time for countries to move to mitigation only, unless and until they are not in a position to affect the course of the epidemic,” Ryan said. “If you do not try to suppress this virus, it can overwhelm your health system.”
In Washington, amid accusations over flaws in the way US health authorities initially responded to the pathogen’s spread, the administration of President Donald Trump is locked in a battle with lawmakers over his economic stimulus package proposal that includes a payroll tax holiday to cushion the economic blow caused by the outbreak.
Confirmed cases in the US have risen to more than 1,000, by some estimates, while the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention pegged the number at 938, as of Wednesday.
The US numbers and counts for many other countries might be set to rise sharply considering an estimate last week by Marc Lipsitch, head of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics.
Lipsitch said 20 per cent to 60 per cent of the world’s adult population could become infected with the new coronavirus, and of those, 1 per cent could die from Covid-19.