Coronavirus has ‘pandemic potential’ – but what is a pandemic?


Man Yi A messenger leaves packages at an outdoor drop-off location as he is not allowed to enter buildings during the coronavirus outbreak in China.

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • The World Health Organisation says coronavirus has “pandemic potential” but is not a pandemic yet.
  • But some experts disagree and some say a pandemic may already be underway.

Coronavirus is not a pandemic, at least not yet. That was the message from the World Health Organization’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a briefing today.

“We should not be too eager to declare a pandemic without a careful and clear-minded analysis of the facts,” he said, noting appeals for a declaration from some politicians and journalists.

His remarks beg one key question: What does it take for experts to label a disease a pandemic?


A pandemic is a new disease that has spread globally, according to the WHO. As most people are not immune to this new disease, it can spread beyond expectation.

Pandemics, as some experts have explained, don’t speak to the severity of a disease, only its geographic reach.

Transition from local epidemics to a global pandemic, according to the WHO, “may occur quickly or gradually as indicated by the global risk assessment, principally based on virological, epidemiological and clinical data.”

At the moment, however, WHO says the coronavirus has not caused a “sustained and intensive community transmission” or large-scale casualties.

China has fewer than 80,000 cases in a population of 1.4 billion people, explained WHO. In the rest of the world, there are 2,790 cases in a population of 6.3 billion.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk
Characteristics of the past four influenza pandemics.
Image: WHO

Are we already there?

Some disagree. Professor Jimmy Whitworth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the BBC: “I think many people would consider the current situation a pandemic, we have ongoing transmission in multiple regions of the world.”

Cases of the virus have now been reported on every continent apart from Antarctica, with Brazil and Greece the latest countries to confirm outbreaks.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about epidemics?

Epidemics are a huge threat to health and the economy: the vast spread of disease can literally destroy societies.

In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to them during outbreaks.

Our world needs stronger, unified responses to major health threats. By creating alliances and coalitions like CEPI, which involve expertise, funding and other support, we are able to collectively address the most pressing global health challenges.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum to tackle global health issues? Find out more here.

Dr Nathalie MacDermott of the UK National Institute for Health Research told the BBC she was most worried about the ability of countries with weakened healthcare systems to cope with the virus.

“I think we are teetering on the balance of a pandemic, in the next week or two we’re likely to see it pop up in lots of places and if it’s on several different continents then we’d be approaching a pandemic.”

Still, cases in China peaked at the end of January and have since declined. As the Director General explained, measures taken in China have helped stem the spread of the disease and “have averted a significant number of cases.”

He said: “The key message that should give all countries hope, courage and confidence is that this virus can be contained.”

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk
Where has coronavirus been confirmed around the world.
Image: Statista

Looking ahead

Ultimately, the decision to declare a pandemic rests with the WHO’s Director General. His decision will be based on a range of factors including how fast the disease is spreading, which groups of people are most at risk and the effectiveness of treatments.

The list also includes an assessment of symptoms and complications, how many people become ill and the impact on health workers and the ability of the global health system to cope. There are no hard and fast criteria – it’s a judgment call.

Caution has driven WHO’s reluctance to use the word “pandemic.” The word, the Director General explained, “has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems.”

That caution could stem, in part, from WHO’s handling of the H1N1 swine fever outbreak in 2009. Using criteria since abandoned, the WHO declared a pandemic. Later, when the disease proved less deadly than first feared, some accused the WHO of overreacting.

Preventing unnecessary panic, of course, is key. The word pandemic “may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true,” said the Director General. “We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right things.”

He added that WHO would not hesitate to use the word pandemic if it becomes “an accurate description of the situation.”

Still, the Director General was keen to stress today that coronavirus has “pandemic potential” and that preparation would be crucial.

“Do not mistake me,” he said. “I am not downplaying the seriousness of the situation.”

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