Coronavirus: What will happen when WHO declares a pandemic?


For the first time since the coronavirus was discovered, the number of new infections inside China has been overtaken by new cases in other parts of the world.

Currently 45 countries outside of China have been impacted by the virus, with Italy and Iran emerging as other epicentres of the disease.

These fresh outbreaks have sparked questions of whether the virus should be considered a pandemic.

On January 30 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus an international public health emergency, the highest level of classification they have for a disease outbreak.

The organisation defines a pandemic as “an outbreak of a new pathogen that spreads easily from person to person across the globe”.

However, WHO has been very resistant to labelling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, though it has warned there is potential for it to happen.

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media_cameraThe virus has now spread to 45 other countries. Picture: John Hopkins CSSE

WHY WHO HASN’T DECLARED A PANDEMIC

Concerns are growing about the possibility of the coronavirus reaching pandemic level, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison implementing an emergency response plan in preparation.

Mr Morrison told reporters this afternoon there is “every indication the world will soon enter the pandemic phase of the virus”.

He said the government had moved ahead of WHO and was now effectively operating on the basis a pandemic had been declared.

However, WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the outbreak has not reached pandemic level just yet.

Speaking at a weekly briefing on the virus yesterday, Dr Tedros said using the word “pandemic” could have a number of negative impacts.

“The increase in cases outside China has prompted some media and politicians to push for a pandemic to be declared. We should not be too eager to declare a pandemic without a careful and clear-minded analysis of the facts,” he said.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems.

“It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true. We are in a fight that can be won if we do the right things.”

MORE: Follow the latest coronavirus updates here

However, Dr Tedros said WHO “would not hesitate” to label it a pandemic if it was an “accurate description of the situation”.

He claimed that right now the coronavirus wasn’t resulting in large-scale severe disease or death nor has it reached the level of sustained and intensive community transmission.

“Do not mistake me: I am not downplaying the seriousness of the situation, or the potential for this to become a pandemic, because it has that potential,” he said.

“Every scenario is still on the table.

“On the contrary, we are saying that this virus has pandemic potential and WHO is providing the tools for every country to prepare accordingly.”

The WHO said calling the coronavirus a pandemic could have ‘significant’ consequences. Picture: Ezra Acayan/Getty Imagespacific.epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/1582811089_271_Coronavirus-What-will-happen-when-WHO-declares-a-pandemic.webp”/>
media_cameraThe WHO said calling the coronavirus a pandemic could have ‘significant’ consequences. Picture: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

While it is not yet a pandemic, Dr Tedros said every country must be prepared for the scenario in which it is declared a pandemic.

Another reason WHO may be resistant to calling the outbreak a pandemic is because of the backlash they received last time they did it.

In 2009, WHO declared a pandemic for the H1N1 influenza, more commonly known as swine flu.

This decision was heavily criticised by multiple countries, with many claiming it caused unnecessary panic and its severity had been over-estimated.

The pandemic declaration also resulted in many countries stocking up on the swine flu vaccine, leading to millions of doses going unused.

Since then WHO has completely removed the pandemic classification, meaning the organisation no longer has a formal way of even declaring a pandemic.

“WHO does not use the old system of six phases – that ranged from phase one (no reports of animal influenza causing human infections) to phase six (a pandemic) – that some people may be familiar with from H1N1 in 2009,” a WHO spokesperson told The Telegraph.

“We do use term pandemic for all sorts of purposes and may qualify a situation as pandemic, but there would no official announcement.”

But the organisation has warned that even just using the word pandemic can have negative consequences and as such must be used cautiously.

WHAT HAPPENS IF A PANDEMIC IS DECLARED

Though WHO is resistant to declaring a pandemic, if cases of the coronavirus keep spreading throughout countries other than China then it is highly likely the decision will have to be made.

If this is the case then the focus will likely shift from containment to mitigation.

This means governments will turn their attention to slowing down the spread throughout the population by taking measures like cancelling major events where people could infect each other or stopping people going to school or work.

Associate Professor Ian Mackay from the University of Queensland said in his opinion a pandemic was inevitable and it was only a matter of time before the coronavirus tore through Australia.

Doctors treating a patient infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus at a hospital in Wuhan. Picture: STR/AFPpacific.epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/1582811093_629_Coronavirus-What-will-happen-when-WHO-declares-a-pandemic.webp”/>
media_cameraDoctors treating a patient infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus at a hospital in Wuhan. Picture: STR/AFP

He told 3AW’s Neil Mitchell that efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus will likely have an impact on the supply chain of goods.

Prof Mackay said while there is no need to panic buy food and other items, buying a “few extra things” was a good idea.

“Think about your pets, think about your parents and grandparents (and) how they’re going to go. Do they need medication? Should you talk to your doctor about getting a few extra prescriptions in the cupboard just in case?” he said.

“It’s pretty much to say what happens if your schools get closed and you’re stuck at home with your kids for a while or if people say you can’t go to work, we need to keep people at home for a while to slow down the spread of the virus.

“Are you set up at home to have some stuff for a couple of weeks to keep going, to have stuff to eat (like) canned food, dried food. Do you have (home-based activities) to do? Have you got batteries?”

Empty shelves at a grocery store in Singapore after panic buying swept through the city after the government raised the alert level for a deadly novel coronavirus. Picture: Martin Abuggao/AFPpacific.epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/1582811095_928_Coronavirus-What-will-happen-when-WHO-declares-a-pandemic.webp”/>
media_cameraEmpty shelves at a grocery store in Singapore after panic buying swept through the city after the government raised the alert level for a deadly novel coronavirus. Picture: Martin Abuggao/AFP

Australia’s chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, said if a global pandemic was declared then the country “will be prepared”.

“Every part of the health system is now working on its plan so that we’re ready if things develop further in the future,” he said in a recent press conference.

Dr Murphy said the decision to call it a pandemic will likely depend on whether cases of the virus keep growing in Europe and the Middle East.

“If it is sustained in those countries, as it has been in China, I suspect the WHO would make such a call,” he said.

“But at the moment, they’re not making that call, because those countries are trying to contain.”

Originally published as What will happen when pandemic hits



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