A harried man in a suit addresses a microphone in front of a WHO logo.
Enlarge / World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gives a press conference on the situation regarding the COVID-19 at Geneva’s WHO headquarters on February 24, 2020.

As outbreaks of the new coronavirus flare up in several countries beyond China, experts at the World Health Organization on Monday tried to rein in fears and media speculation that the public health emergency will become a pandemic.

“I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing Monday. “Using the word ‘pandemic’ now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.”

As always, the director-general (who goes by Dr. Tedros) and his colleagues at WHO tried to shift the conversation away from speculation and worst-case scenarios. Instead, they want to focus on data and preparation. In doing so, though, Dr. Tedros noted that some of the latest figures in the epidemic are “deeply concerning.”

Since last week, officials have reported rapid increases in COVID-19 cases in several countries, namely South Korea, Iran, and Italy. As of Monday, February 24, South Korea has confirmed 763 cases and 7 deaths—a dramatic rise from the 30 cases and zero deaths it had tallied just a week ago.

The situation in Italy, likewise, went from 3 cases at the start of last week to 124 confirmed cases and two deaths Monday. Iran went from zero to 43 cases in the same period and has reported eight deaths.

The figures have led to many media reports over the weekend speculating on whether the new coronavirus outbreak is or would become a pandemic. For now, Dr. Tedros said, it is not.

“Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society,” he explained. “For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death.”

Assessing risk

Dr. Tedros summarized some of the latest data on cases and disease from China, noting that cases there are in decline and have been declining since February 2.

In Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December, the COVID-19 fatality rate appears to be between 2 percent and 4 percent. US experts have noted that this high fatality rate may partly reflect the fact that health systems in the city have been extremely overwhelmed by the outbreak and facilities have run short of medical supplies.

Outside of Wuhan, the COVID-19 fatality rate in China is approximately 0.7 percent, Dr. Tedros said. But many public health experts have suggested that even that figure may be higher than the actual fatality rate because many mild, nonfatal cases may have gone uncounted. If counted, they would dilute the death toll, leading to a lower fatality rate.

For people who have mild infections—which is over 80 percent of cases, according to Chinese data—recovery takes about two weeks. More severe infections can take three to six weeks until recovery.

Dr. Tedros also reported that the coronavirus itself does not appear to be mutating.

“The key message that should give all countries hope, courage, and confidence is that this virus can be contained,” Dr. Tedros said of the latest assessment from China.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”

Tomorrow, a team of experts from WHO and China will reveal more details on a technical report about the situation, including 22 recommendations on how best to address the epidemic.

Worldwide

As of Monday, there are over 79,400 cases worldwide, with 2,622 deaths. The vast majority of cases and deaths are in China. About 2,100 cases and 23 deaths are scattered among 31 countries outside of China, as well as the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama, Japan.

Also Monday, the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention updated the number of cases in the country from 34 on Friday to 53 today. The jump is largely due to a rise in cases among repatriated passengers from the Diamond Princess. The case count among those travelers rose from 18 to 36.

All of the cases in the United States so far are linked to travel or are in people who have been repatriated from outbreak areas and were therefore already considered at high risk.

The risk to the general American public at this time is still considered to be low. However, the CDC has said that it expects that cases will continue to be identified and that community-based spread may occur. The agency says it is working with state and local health systems to prepare for that possibility.