The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said the world is “on the cusp of a [coronavirus] pandemic”, and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the country’s primary federal agency responsible for tracking and responding to outbreaks of disease, believes that a pandemic is now “not so much a question of if… but rather more a question of when”.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and other health authorities have so far been referring only to a COVID-19 “outbreak”, which WHO on January 30 declared was a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”.
DEFINITIONS: While an outbreak is understood to be a sudden rise in the cases of a disease in a particular place, and an epidemic as a large outbreak among a particular population or region (such as the current situation in China), a pandemic, according to the WHO, is “the worldwide spread of a new disease”.
On February 24, Dr Michael J Ryan, a senior WHO official, told reporters that the word “pandemic comes from the Greek ‘pandemos’, which means everybody”, CNN reported. “Demos means the population. Pan meaning everyone. So ‘pandemos’ is a concept where there’s a belief that the whole world’s population will likely be exposed to this infection and potentially a proportion of them fall sick,” Dr Ryan said.
While the WHO looks for sustained outbreaks causing a larger-than-expected number of cases on multiple continents, there is no specific number of countries that a disease must touch for WHO to classify it as a pandemic. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO, has said that COVID-19 isn’t a pandemic yet.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet,” he said. “We are not witnessing uncontained global spread of the virus, [therefore] using the word pandemic does not fit the facts.”
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SPREAD: The novel coronavirus disease that emerged in Wuhan, China, in the final days of last year, is now in at least 47 countries around the world, spanning every continent except Antarctica. More than 82,000 people have been infected, and over 2,800 are dead.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia, for the first time in living memory, suspended pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina for people outside the country. Japan has shut all schools until April, and the Olympic Games, scheduled to begin in Tokyo on July 24, are in danger of being cancelled.
Infections have been confirmed in countries from Brazil to Sweden, Canada to Australia. Iran has confirmed 26 deaths, South Korea 13, Italy 12. Estonia, Norway, Denmark, and Romania have reported their first cases, and in two new cases in the UK, the infection has been traced to places as far apart as Italy and the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.
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‘SEMANTICS’: Many experts believe that irrespective whether the WHO makes a formal “declaration”, a pandemic is in effect already upon us. CNN quoted Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as saying there was no definitive definition of what constitutes a pandemic, it “means different things to different people”, and “it really is borderline semantics”. Commentators have pointed out that declaring a pandemic will not bring in more money to fight the disease or bestow extra powers on the WHO.
In June 2009, the WHO declared a global pandemic of novel influenza A (H1N1), commonly known as swine flu. The WHO has abandoned that system of classification now, even though the term pandemic can still be used “colloquially”. Spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told CNN that “groups in various organisations are working to define pandemic for this novel virus, which could take some time”. The WHO continues to advise countries “to enact plans based on national risk assessments of local circumstances, taking into consideration the information provided by WHO’s global assessments”, CNN quoted Jasarevic as saying.