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Why Is The WHO Not Calling The Coronavirus A Pandemic?


We are seeing fear of the coronavirus spread to more places outside of China. South Korea, Iran, Italy - all are dealing with upticks in cases. Now a case at a Spanish island resort has authorities there on high alert as well. Here in the United States, the Trump administration is set to request $2.5 billion for an emergency response to the coronavirus. Now, at this point, the World Health Organization is not calling this disease a pandemic, and that's where I want to begin with NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK, so we've seen spread in Asia, North America, Europe, the Middle East. I mean, this certainly sounds like a global disease. Explain the WHO's decision to not call this a pandemic right now.

HARRIS: Well, the term pandemic isn't simply that a disease is spreading around the world. The WHO also thinks about how severe it is and what impact it has. As the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explained yesterday, the disease needs to have a significant impact on at least two continents for him to consider it a pandemic. And he is mindful of the power of a label.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: I have spoken consistently about the need for facts, not fear. Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear. This is not the time to focus on what word we use. That will not prevent a single infection today or save a single life today.

HARRIS: And he says it is entirely possible, of course, that this will become a pandemic, but by his definition, we are not there yet. In the past, the term pandemic has been used to describe major influenza outbreaks, including two in the previous century and one around 2009, which was the swine flu thing which swept the globe and killed something like half a million people.

GREENE: Well, help me with something you said there. I mean, the flu - I'm hearing some comparisons between coronavirus and the flu, which obviously we're all familiar with. Is there a chance this disease could become seasonal like the flu, something we see every year?

HARRIS: Yes, in fact, at this point, it seems like that might be the most likely outcome. It's a bit nastier as a disease, but it could well just sort of become part of the fabric of our daily existence, whether seasonally or sort of around the calendar. We don't know really. But public health officials really made a big deal of the coronavirus right up to this point because they knew they had essentially one chance to try to stop it in its tracks. That strategy was successful in controlling the disease called SARS, which was caused by a similar virus back in 2003. But it looks like this full court press is not going to contain the new disease, which they're calling COVID-19.

GREENE: So here in the U.S., there's been a lot of concern about American citizens returning home. And there was this judge here in California yesterday upholding a restraining order that was preventing the moving of patients to a different facility. Can you explain exactly what happened there?

HARRIS: Yeah, well, at last count, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are 36 people who had been evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that had been docked in Japan, you'll recall.


HARRIS: They've been infected with the coronavirus, and it's quite possible that many other people who were evacuated from that ship could come down with the virus as well. The trick though is that many of them aren't sick, so they don't need to go to the hospital. So health officials have been trying to find somewhere else for them to hang out in isolation while their infection passes. A FEMA center in Alabama was one idea that got shot down by state officials. And authorities in California, as you mentioned, were also looking at an unused building in Costa Mesa, Calif., in Orange County. But again, there was a large public outcry, and the judges stopped that, at least for the time being.

GREENE: And then this $2.5 billion the Trump administration is talking about for an emergency response - but where would that money be focused?

HARRIS: Well, it would actually be more scattered than focused. It would be spent on everything from quarantines to testing, local health department responses, and perhaps most important, the development of a new vaccine. That will take at least a year, but if this virus is going to join that list of common diseases, we sure do want a vaccine. Symptoms are mild to moderate in about 80% of cases, and the case fatality rate is less than 1%. But that still is nastier than the flu, so a vaccine would be lovely.

GREENE: NPR's science correspondent Richard Harris helping us understand the latest on the coronavirus. Thanks so much, Richard.

HARRIS: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.