The spread of COVID-19 around the world has passed the point of no return, according to the World Health Organization.
Today, the WHO officially declared the outbreak of a disease caused by a new coronavirus as a pandemic, the second to occur in the 21st century.
Just two days ago, the WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned against using the word pandemic to describe the outbreak, even though some public health experts and several press organizations claimed it had clearly reached that point.
Tedros and other WHO officials said it was still possible to prevent COVID-19 from spreading uncontrollably around the world. They cited several countries like South Korea and China that have managed to drastically reduce new cases over the past few days and weeks.
Given the worsening situation and the lack of a strong response from many countries, the WHO has changed its mind.
"WHO has assessed this outbreak 24 hours a day and we are deeply concerned about both the alarming levels of spread and severity, and the alarming levels of inaction"Tedros said at a press conference on Wednesday. “We therefore assessed that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.
What does it mean?
Declaring a pandemic is perhaps the only way that the WHO has to draw the attention of the many countries that have so far adopted very little or almost no measures. The level of global monitoring and response will begin to rise, hoping that we have not lost precious weeks.
It will be possible to adopt, perhaps even impose at a supranational level general solutions and coordination (for example on the supply chain and on the supply of sanitary ware). In short, it is the certification of a failure, but it could be good news.
As of today, March 11, there have been more than 120.000 documented cases of COVID-19 and over 4.200 deaths, spread across at least 114 countries.
And while the majority 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 10.000 reported cases, while Spain reported its first spike in cases this week. Turkey, which borders Iran and half a dozen other Middle Eastern countries with COVID-19, also reported its first case today, after weeks of denying the infection was within its borders.
While the death rate of COVID-19 is not as high as that of other historical pandemics, such as the Black Death, it could still be more deadly than the 2009 flu pandemic, which could have killed over 250.000 people around the world.
Estimates of his mortality rate range from 3,4% worldwide to 0,5% in South Korea, where the disease has been meticulously monitored through large-scale population screening. But even this low end would make COVID-19 several times more lethal than seasonal flu, while about 20% of victims are expected to suffer from severe respiratory diseases.
What is certain is that things will continue to get worse in the near future.
"In the days and weeks to come, we expect the number of COVID-19 cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries to increase even more", Tedros said.
The opaque case of the USA
One of the countries where the situation is not completely clear is the US, which today reported over 1.000 cases and 30 deaths.
The country's testing capacity 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 United States, had already tested 140.000 residents last week.)
Last Wednesday, Reuters reported that the White House has ordered health officials to decree discussions on the novel coronavirus, a worrying sign that the Trump administration is limiting the information available to public health workers and the general public.
Health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress Wednesday they were developing solutions. Specifically, blood tests that can be used to check people even if they don't show symptoms.