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Novel Coronavirus Outbreak Threatens to Become Pandemic

Image: Collage of colorized scanning electron micrograph of MERS coronavirus virus particles (via NIAID) overlap map of the world.

New coronavirus has now reached more than 20 countries from China, where the epidemic or disease outbreak began over a month ago. Experts are worried about how much further it could spread and how many people will get sick.

When is a pandemic declared?

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) description of pandemic phases, coronavirus is only a step away from being a pandemic. It is spreading between people and has been seen in many of China’s neighboring countries, as well as further afield. If we start seeing sustained community-level outbreaks in multiple parts of the world, then it will be a pandemic.1

Only 1 death outside of China so far

China’s National Health Commission reported Monday that there are 17,228 confirmed cases in China, including 15 in Hong Kong and eight in Macao. The self-governing island of Taiwan reported 10 cases. The World Health Organization reported 146 confirmed cases in 23 countries outside China.

There has been 1 confirmed 2019-nCoV related death outside of China to date. A 44-year-old man who traveled from Wuhan, China, the center of the outbreak, died in the Philippines, officials reported on Feb 2.2

Scientists do not yet know how lethal the new coronavirus is, however, so there is uncertainty about how much damage a pandemic might cause. But there is growing consensus that the pathogen is readily transmitted between humans.

The Wuhan coronavirus is spreading more like influenza, which is highly transmissible, than like its slow-moving viral cousins, SARS and MERS, scientists have found.

NIAID, WHO leadership sound the alarm

“It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic. But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.3

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Monday that the world may be “dangerously” unprepared for the next pandemic as the flu-like coronavirus that emerged from China about a month ago spreads rapidly to new countries.

At an executive board meeting in Geneva, Tedros urged the World Health Organization’s 196 member countries to “invest in preparedness,” not “panic.” He added that funding for outbreak preparedness in surrounding countries “has remained grossly inadequate” in the past.

“For too long, the world has operated on a cycle of panic and neglect,” Tedros said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “We throw money at an outbreak, and when it’s over, we forget about it and do nothing to prevent the next one.”4

1. Coronavirus: Could It Become Pandemic? BBC

2. Philippines Reports First Coronavirus Death Outside China NY Times

3. Wuhan Coronavirus Looks Increasingly Like a Pandemic, Experts Say NY Times

4. Top WHO Official Warns World May Be ‘Dangerously Unprepared’ for Next Pandemic as Coronavirus Outbreak Spreads CNBC

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