For the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, a pandemic.
WHO defines a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new disease for which most people do not have immunity.
As of Wednesday, 114 countries have reported that 118,000 have contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, known as SARS-CoV2. Nearly 4,300 people have died.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the situation will worsen.
“We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” said Tedros, as the director-general is known.
The virus causes mild respiratory infections in about 80% of those infected, though about half will have pneumonia. Another 15% develop severe illness, and 5% need critical care.
WHO officials had said earlier they were hesitant to call the outbreak a pandemic in case it led governments and individuals to give up the fight. On Wednesday, they stressed that fundamental public health interventions can still limit the spread of the virus and drive down cases even where it was transmitting widely, as the work of authorities and communities in China, Singapore, and South Korea has shown.
“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus,” Tedros said at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, in making the announcement. “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”
At the same time, Tedros said: “This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector — so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.”
Tedros said this was the first coronavirus to reach pandemic levels, but also said: “we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled.”
The virus, which probably originated in bats but passed to people via an as yet unrecognized intermediary animal species, is believed to have started infecting people in Wuhan, China, in late November or early December. Since then the virus has raced around the globe.