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COVID-19 Is Officially A Pandemic, Declares World Health Organization


The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. This move comes as the WHO reports some 120,000 cases in 114 countries around the globe. Cases have been rising dramatically in Europe, Iran and the United States over the last 24 hours. NPR's Jason Beaubien is here in the studio with the latest.

Hi, Jason.


SHAPIRO: The coronavirus outbreak has been going on for a while.


SHAPIRO: So why is the WHO declaring it a pandemic now at this point?

BEAUBIEN: So the head of the WHO Tedros, Adhanom Ghebreyesus, today he said that the WHO is making this designation because they expect that things are going to get worse.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.

BEAUBIEN: And the WHO was very hesitant to actually declare this a pandemic mainly because they were afraid that by doing that, it was going to send this signal that all hope is lost; you know, it's a pandemic, so there's nothing you can really do about it. And not only did they not want to send that message, they strongly believe that that message isn't true.

SHAPIRO: And so what is the effect of declaring it a pandemic in that case?

BEAUBIEN: So, you know, it's basically just an acknowledgement of the scale of this. It's not like declaring it a public health emergency of international concern, which they already did. That designation triggers these bureaucratic, you know, protocols, where they can help pressure particular countries to be more aggressive, and it, you know, helps with some communications and, you know, sharing member state information - things like that. This is really a chance to very clearly say, you know, this health crisis has reached a global scale, transmission is happening in many parts of the world, and they're very concerned about the future of it.

SHAPIRO: So what does this declaration mean in practical, real-world terms? I mean, are they effectively saying the horse has left the barn - this is unstoppable? Does it change the recommendations for dealing with it? What?

BEAUBIEN: You know, and this debate is part of what they were grappling with with whether or not to declare it a pandemic. They don't want to be focusing on that. Their position is that the global response to this virus doesn't change at this point in time, should not change at this point in time, doesn't switch because it's a pandemic to just mitigation instead of containment, you know, not - doesn't switch over to only treating the sick rather than trying to contain the virus.

You know, and the argument that they have been making is that countries need to isolate cases; they need to stop national outbreaks in their tracks. And they point out that 90% of the cases globally right now are just four countries. So they're saying that most countries are in a position to do that.

SHAPIRO: We often hear about pandemics in terms of the flu. I mean there was the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009...


SHAPIRO: ...The 1918 Spanish flu. Millions of people across the globe were infected. Is that necessarily what's going to happen here?

BEAUBIEN: You know, we really don't know. I was talking with Ashish Jha. He runs the Global Health Institute at Harvard.

ASHISH JHA: You know, if I hear one more comparison to the flu, I'm going to lose my mind; it's not a helpful comparison.

BEAUBIEN: (Laughter) He said that this virus is very different from the flu, and it's different from other coronaviruses like MERS and SARS. And he said that, you know, this virus - in a way, he called it falling into the sweet spot of terribleness. And he basically said that dealing with it is tricky because it isn't a SARS. It's not as deadly as SARS. It's not as scary as Ebola. And that's led to complacency, including in the United States.

And the WHO is also worried about this. They're - basically been badgering governments to really take this more seriously. And even today, you know, the WHO is saying most countries have an ability right now to contain it inside their borders, test for it, isolate it and snuff this virus out.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien on today's WHO announcement that the coronavirus is officially a pandemic.

Thank you, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.