In Brief

Coronavirus outbreak officially declared a pandemic, WHO says

passengers at LAX wear masks in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak
(Image credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic, after the disease caused by the new coronavirus spread to more than 100 countries and led to tens of thousands of cases within a few months.

"We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity [of COVID-19], and by the alarming levels of inaction," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, said at a news conference on today (March 11). "We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic."

This is the first time WHO has declared a pandemic over a coronavirus, Ghebreyesus said. He noted that the number of COVID-19 cases reported outside China has soared in recent days, rising 13-fold in the past two weeks. There have been more than 120,000 cases of COVID-19 worldwide and more than 4,300 deaths attributed to the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University.

WHO has been cautious in its decision to declare a pandemic, because the word, "if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over," Ghebreyesus said.

But he stressed that the declaration of a pandemic today does not change the threat of the virus or what countries should do to respond. "We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action," Ghebreyesus said. "We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear."

Ghebreyesus said countries should be working to detect, isolate and treat COVID-19 cases and trace COVID-19 patients' contacts; to protect and train health care workers and prepare hospitals; and to communicate with members of the public about the risks of the disease and how to protect themselves.

There's been so much attention on the word "pandemic," Ghebreyesus said. "Let me give you some other words that matter much more ... Prevention. Preparedness. Public health. Political leadership. And most of all, people," he said. 

The declaration of a pandemic comes more than a month after WHO declared COVID-19 a "public health emergency of international concern."

Originally published on Live Science.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.