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WHO declares COVID-19 'a pandemic', concerned by 'alarming levels of inaction'

Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland on February 28, 2020.
Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland on February 28, 2020. © Denis Balibouse, Reuters

The World Health Organization declared Wednesday that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic, expressing increasing alarm about mounting infections.

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“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.

"All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response," Ghebreyesus said.

The novel coronavirus, which emerged in China in December, has spread around the world, halting industry, bringing flights to a standstill, closing schools and forcing the postponement of sporting events and concerts.

The WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, its “highest level of alarm”, on January 30 when there were fewer than 100 cases of COVID-19 outside China and eight cases of human-to-human transmission of the disease.

Now there are more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have died, Ghebreyesus said, with the numbers expected to climb.

The WHO no longer has a category for declaring a pandemic, except for influenza. 

But WHO officials have signalled for weeks that they may use the word “pandemic” as a descriptive term, but stressed that it does not carry legal significance. The novel coronavirus is not the flu.

Under its previous system, the Geneva-based agency declared the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak a pandemic. It turned out to be mild, leading to some criticism after pharmaceutical companies rushed development of vaccines and drugs.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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