With New Hotspots, Coronavirus on Verge of Pandemic

He says a WHO team has landed in Italy to assist there. Another team of experts is on its way to Iran.

Infectious disease experts say they respect the WHO’s caution, but they say a pandemic seems almost inevitable.

“There are currently ongoing chains of transmission in South Korea, Japan, Northern Italy, Iran, and these are the ones that we know of,” says Isaac Bogoch, MD, an infectious disease researcher at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute.

“You can see the pendulum swinging much closer to greater global transmission of this infection,” Bogoch says.

Mike Ryan, MD, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, says they are being cautious about declaring a pandemic with COVID-19 because there are still so many unknowns.

He says it is easier, for example, to tell when the flu reaches a pandemic level because the flu is better understood.

“We’ve had previous pandemics, and we know with influenza that when there’s highly efficient community transmission…, as we see with seasonal flu, and that the disease does spread around the world. So it’s much easier to say when a pandemic will occur in an influenza situation,” he said.

Ryan says some of the biggest questions about COVID-19 revolve around exactly how it spreads through communities.

“Look what’s happened in China,” he says. “We’ve seen a significant drop in cases. Huge pressure was placed on the virus, and a sequential decrease in cases. That goes against the logic of pandemic. Yet, we see, in contrast to that an acceleration of cases in places like Korea.”

“We’re still in the balance,” he says.

Ryan stresses that countries and individuals should still be getting ready.

“It is time to do everything you would do in preparing for a pandemic,” he says.

For countries, Ryan says, those steps were preparing to detect and treat cases, preparing to follow contacts of known cases, and preparing to put containment measures in place.

People should be prepared to stay home from work or school — the so-called self-quarantine. Tedros says the WHO’s study of the infection in China shows that people with mild cases could expect to recover within 2 weeks, while critical or severe cases recover in 3 to 6 weeks.