The World Health Organization no longer uses the classification pandemic, but the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak remains an international emergency that is likely to spread further, a spokesman said on Monday.
Fears of a coronavirus pandemic grew after sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea, although China relaxed restrictions on movement in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections eased.
The Geneva-based WHO declared the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak a pandemic, which turned out to be mild, leading to some criticism after pharmaceutical companies rushed development of vaccines and drugs.
WHO declared the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China, in December a public health emergency of international concern, known as a PHEIC, on Jan. 30. The designation, which remains in place, was aimed at helping countries with weaker health systems shore up their defences, especially in Africa.
Since then the virus has spread, with more than 77,000 known infections in China, including 2,445 deaths, and 1,769 cases and 17 deaths in 28 other countries, the latest WHO figures show. South Korea, Japan and Italy are experiencing large outbreaks.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
"There is no official category (for a pandemic)," WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.
"For the sake of clarification, WHO does not use the old system of 6 phases â€” that ranged from phase 1 (no reports of animal influenza causing human infections) to phase 6 (a pandemic) â€” that some people may be familiar with from H1N1 in 2009," he said.
Colloquially, pandemic is used to denote the outbreak of a new pathogen that spreads easily person-to-person across the globe, Jasarevic said.
"What we are seeing at the moment are outbreaks and clusters of cases in multiple countries. Some countries have since stopped transmission. They must remain alert for the possibility of reintroduction. There will likely be more cases in more places," he said.
"Definitions and terminology aside, our advice remains the same, and we continue working with countries to limit the spread of the virus while also preparing for the possibility of wider spread," he said.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said on Friday: "I would like to assure you we are following this virus 24/7 round the clock ... As we speak our situation is that we are still in a phase where containment is possible with a narrowing window of opportunity."