An illustration of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19
An illustration of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19
Illustration: Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins (CDC)

COVID-19’s spread around the globe has passed the point of no return, according to the World Health Organization. On Wednesday, WHO officially declared the outbreak of disease caused by a novel coronavirus a pandemic, the second to have occurred in the 21st century. Meanwhile, the U.S. is scrambling to make screening tests for the virus more widely available.

As recently as Monday, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned against using the word pandemic to describe the outbreak, even as some public health experts and several news organizations argued that it had clearly reached that point. At the time, Tedros and other WHO officials stated it was still possible to prevent COVID-19 from spreading out-of-control throughout the world, citing several countries such as South Korea and China that have managed to sharply reduce new cases in recent days and weeks.

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But given the worsening situation and the lack of a strong response by many countries, the WHO seemingly changed its mind.

“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,” Tedros said Wednesday at a press briefing. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”

As of March 11, there have been more than 120,000 documented cases of COVID-19 and over 4,200 deaths, scattered across at least 114 countries. And while the bulk of these cases are still in China (80,000), where the outbreak began last December, new cases and sustained outbreaks elsewhere are skyrocketing. Italy and Iran both have over 9,000 reported cases, while Spain has reported its first major spike of cases this week. Turkey, which borders Iran and a half dozen other countries in the Middle East with COVID-19, also reported their first case Wednesday, following weeks of denials it had entered their borders.

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Though the fatality rate of COVID-19 isn’t as high as those of other historic pandemics, such as the Black Death, it still could turn out to be deadlier than the 2009 flu pandemic, which may have killed up to a half million people worldwide. Estimates of its fatality rate range from 3.4 percent worldwide to 0.5 percent in South Korea, where the disease has been meticulously tracked through wide-scale population screening. But even this low range would still make COVID-19 several times deadlier than the seasonal flu, while around 20 percent of victims are thought to experience severe respiratory illness.

What’s certain is that things will continue to get worse in the foreseeable future.

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In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” Tedros said.

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One of the countries where the situation is completely unclear is the U.S., which has reported over 1,000 cases and 29 deaths as of early Wednesday. The country’s testing capability has been almost non-existent for weeks, with only thousands of people tested for the virus as of Monday (South Korea, which is much smaller than the U.S., had already tested 140,000 residents by last week).

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the White House has ordered health officials to classify discussions about the new coronavirus—a worrying sign that the Trump administration is limiting the information available to public health workers and the public at large.

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Health officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also told Congress on Wednesday that they are now developing blood tests that can be used to screen people for the virus even if they are not showing symptoms. But when these surveillance programs will be up and running is still an open question.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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