The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on Wednesday as the new coronavirus, which was unknown to world health officials just three months ago, has rapidly spread to more than 121,000 people from Asia, to Europe, the Middle East and now parts of the United States.
“In the past two weeks the number of cases outside China has increased thirteenfold and the number of affected countries has tripled,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva. “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.”
Tedros said several countries have demonstrated the ability to suppress and control the outbreak, scolding other world leaders for failing to act quickly enough or drastically enough to contain the spread.
“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” he said, just before declaring the pandemic.
“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” Tedros said.
Cases in China and Korea have significantly declined, he said, adding that 81 countries don’t have any confirmed cases and 57 countries have 10 cases or less.
“We can not say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough, all countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” he said. “Some countries are struggling with a lack of capacity. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resources. Some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve.”
Declaring a pandemic is charged with major political and economic ramifications, global health experts say. It can further rattle already fragile world markets and lead to more stringent travel and trade restrictions. WHO officials have been reluctant up until now to categorize the virus as a global pandemic, which is generally defined as an illness that spreads far and wide throughout the world.
WHO officials needed to “make it clear” that the world was in the midst of a pandemic, Lawrence Gostin, a professor and faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said. He added it would continue to be a distraction until they did declare it.
It “is clear” the new coronavirus has been a pandemic and WHO was “behind the curve,” Gostin told CNBC.
The number of cases and deaths changes by the hour, topping 121,564 with at least 4,373 deaths across the world as of Wednesday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Outside China, 32,778 cases across at least 109 countries had been confirmed as of 3 a.m. EDT Tuesday — up from four cases in three countries on Jan. 21, according to the most recent data confirmed by WHO, which tallies the world’s official case count.
While the virus is slowing in China where it originated in December, it’s picking up pace across other parts of the world. Italy has the most cases outside of China with roughly 10,149 infections, followed closely behind by Iran with 9,000 infections and South Korea with 7,775, according to JHU data. In the U.S., cases erupted over the last week to more than 1,050 spread across at least 36 states, according to JHU.
Tedros said this was the first time a coronavirus has caused a pandemic.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said that health officials take the characterization “very seriously,” adding “we understand the implication of the word.”
Tedros previously said the organization wasn’t declaring a pandemic, in part, because most cases of coronavirus were still traced to known contacts or clusters of cases, and there wasn’t any “evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities.”
“Unless we’re convinced it’s uncontrollable, why … call it a pandemic?” he told reporters last week.
The organization raised its risk assessment level on the virus to its highest level of alert last month.
“This is a reality check for every government on the planet: Wake up. Get ready. This virus may be on its way and you need to be ready. You have a duty to your citizens, you have a duty to the world to be ready,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said during a press briefing on Feb. 28.