World Health Organization declares the coronavirus a pandemic

Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, attends a news conference on the coronavirus (COVID-2019) in Geneva, Switzerland February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

It's official: the World Health Organization declared Wednesday the novel coronavirus a pandemic, as it spreads freely in more than 100 countries around the world.

The WHO defines a pandemic as the "worldwide spread of a new disease," and the determination is made based on the geographic spread of a disease, the severity of illnesses it causes, and its effects on society.Advertisement

On Wednesday, the WHO said it was deeply concerned by the "alarming levels of inaction" concerning the coronavirus, but emphasized the term "pandemic" as both a "characterization" and "call to action," not an excuse to give up.

"If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in their response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases from becoming clusters and those clusters from becoming community transmissions," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.

The word pandemic comes from the Greek pan and demos, and indicates the virus affects "all the people" around the world, but using it does not change that much from a pragmatic, disease-fighting perspective. The WHO had been hesitant to refer to this coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic in recent weeks, fearing that the moniker would lead to widespread panic, and that it perhaps was not yet warranted in this outbreak.

"If this was an influenza epidemic, we would have expected to see widespread community transmission across the globe by now, and efforts to slow it down or contain it would not be feasible," Tedros said last week. "But containment of COVID-19 is feasible, and must remain the top priority for all countries."

The organization already declared the COVID-19 outbreak a "global health emergency," in January, the WHO's highest level of alarm, which it reserves for the most serious, sudden, unexpected outbreaks that cross international borders and might require a coordinated response between countries. "There's no numerical definition of a pandemic - like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder," William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, previously told Business Insider.Advertisement

An epidemic, by contrast, refers to a more localized or regional outbreak rather than a global one. That's what health agencies have so far considered the coronavirus outbreak to be.

There is no cure for COVID-19, and no vaccine yet either, though scientists in the US at the National Institutes of Health say one could be ready for initial testing within months (it will still take more than a year to get a vaccine to market). The best preventative measure against COVID-19 is thorough, regular hand-washing.

If you have a mild case of the coronavirus, it's best to treat it like the flu, with plenty of rest, fluids, over the counter medicines to ease symptoms, and time. More serious cases may require hospital equipment - including ventilators to help sick people breathe. Advertisement