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The novel coronavirus that has prompted more than 79,551 cases of COVID-19 worldwide is spreading rapidly — and independently — in countries outside of China, including Italy, South Korea, and Iran.
At least 33 people have died from COVID-19 so far outside China.
The World Health Organization said Monday that while it’s not calling the outbreak a pandemic just yet, the virus has “pandemic potential” to spread freely globally.
Cases of COVID-19 are spreading freely among people outside China, the country where the virus originated in December.
The viral illness is being diagnosed among hundreds of people in pockets of South Korea, Iran, and Italy who have no connection to China. It’s a first sign that while the number of new cases being spread in China may be slowing, the virus is now taking a different direction in some other countries around the world.
The World Health Organization says the novel coronavirus is not creating a global pandemic situation just yet, but it could soon.
“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing larger scale severe disease or death,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters from Geneva on Monday.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
COVID-19 transmission may be slowing in China, but it’s speeding up elsewhere
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.
At least 33 people have been killed by COVID-19 outside China so far, whereas inside that country, more than 2,550 have died.
“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing larger-scale severe disease or death,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world, affecting countries in different ways, and requiring a tailored response.”
In China, for example, cases of the virus have been steadily declining since the beginning of February, when the outbreak hit a peak. But in Iran at least eight people have died already, after the very first cases of COVID-19 in that country were diagnosed late last week. In South Korea, now more than 830 people are sick, and in Italy at least 200 more are ill — seven there have died so far.
The WHO doesn’t consider COVID-19 a pandemic yet, but it might soon
The word pandemic comes from the Greek for “of all the people,” but using it wouldn’t change that much from a pragmatic, disease-fighting perspective. The WHO already declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “global health emergency,” in January, the organization’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.
“This is not the time to focus on what word we use,” Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, stressing that using the word pandemic can serve to stoke more fear when it’s not needed. “That will not prevent a single infection today, or save a single life.”
Instead, the agency urged countries around the world to prepare for the spread of the virus in several different ways: by beefing up their ability to screen travelers and to detect new cases with testing, by better preparing to treat sick patients, and by being ready to put in place containment measures, if needed.
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 within months. The best preventative measure is thorough, regular hand-washing.
Treatment for the virus, which can prompt coughing, fever, sore throat, and difficulty breathing, is much like for the flu, lots of rest, fluids, and medicines that temporarily help people feel better (like cough syrup or fever reducers). Supportive care in severe cases may include machines that help people breathe. Most people recover from a mild case of COVID-19 in about two weeks, whereas recovery from more severe illness can take up to a month and a half.
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