The increasing number of infections has alarmed scientists, but it’s not yet a truly international disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.
There are currently over 20,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, claiming 400 lives — and the numbers are increasing every day. Although it’s not clear just how severe the disease is, it seems to be more dangerous than the common influenza, and more contagious than the similar 2003 SARS outbreak that was also caused by a coronavirus. But despite all this, it’s not a pandemic yet, the WHO argues.
It makes a lot of sense: 99% of the confirmed infected cases are in mainland China, with only 20 confirmed cases in Japan — the 2nd most exposed country. Although cases have been confirmed in Australia, North America, and Europe, no country other than China has truly felt the brunt of the outbreak, and the confirmed international cases are carefully quarantined and supervised.
What’s a pandemic, anyway?
A pandemic — originating from the Greek word pándēmos, which means “all people” — is defined as the “worldwide spread of a new disease” by the WHO. This says nothing of the severity or potential impact of the disease, just that it has footholds throughout the world.
Major pandemics include the HIV pandemic, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, but also more recent (and not-as-devastating) events such as the H1N1 Influenza pandemic of 2015.
For now at least, it’s not a pandemic, health officials say. Sylvie Briand, head of WHO’s Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness division, praised how Chinese authorities responded to the outbreak and how health workers worldwide are fighting to limit the spread of the disease. She voiced hope that the world will “get rid of the virus“, and added that we should not also fall victim to an “information epidemic.”
“When you deal with an epidemic, you rapidly see that in addition to the epidemic of diseases, we often have an epidemic of information. And this is what we call ‘infodemic’,” she told the BBC.
“And so we have realised over time that this infodemic could be really an obstacle for good response and hamper effective implementation of counter-measures.”
It’s an important argument: the novel coronavirus is undoubtedly dangerous and can easily become a global pandemic without careful management — but there is also a lot of needless panic being spread. The Wuhan coronavirus has become the latest fighting ground for disinformation and fearmongering, with bogus conspiracy theories being spread faster than the virus itself.
The 2019 coronavirus is a global health emergency, but spreading lies and fake stories won’t help anyone. The virus might be contained or it might spread far beyond current numbers — as of right now, we just don’t know yet.