BEIJING, March 12 (Xinhua) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday that the COVID-19 outbreak can be characterized as a "pandemic" as the virus is increasingly spreading worldwide.
"This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference.
WHAT IS A PANDEMIC
A WHO website defines a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease."
A pandemic does not necessarily refer to the severity of a disease, but has something to do with concern over its geographic spread. Another definition put forth in the book "Epidemiology 101" says that a pandemic is "an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people."
The term is most often applied to new influenza strains, and "an influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus emerges and spreads around the world, and most people do not have immunity," the WHO states on its website. "Viruses that have caused past pandemics typically originated from animal influenza viruses."
Tedros said that describing the COVID-19 situation as a pandemic does not change the WHO's assessment of the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, nor does it change what the WHO is doing and countries should do.
Answering a question from Xinhua during Wednesday's press conference, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program, said pandemic "is a characterization or description of the situation." He denied that such a move would trigger anything other than more aggressive and intensive action.
WHY DECLARED NOW
The WHO has made many internal and external consultations in assessing the use of the word "pandemic" as a characterization of COVID-19, Ryan added.
Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England and the Department of Health and Social Care's chief scientific adviser, said "this announcement by WHO reflects the changing global situation. There is ongoing transmission in multiple countries."
"There will be challenges ahead, and we need everyone to play a role," he added.
According to the UN health agency, there are now more than 118,000 confirmed cases in 114 countries and regions, and 4,291 people have lost their lives.
The number of coronavirus cases, deaths, as well as affected countries is expected to climb even higher in the days and weeks ahead, Tedros noted.
While China's prevention and control efforts achieved progress, cases of infection have been rising rapidly in Europe and other parts of the world, with Italy being the hardest-hit country outside of China.
The total number of confirmed cases in Italy surged over 12,000 as of Wednesday, despite its drastic measure of locking down the entire country.