World Health Organisation: coronavirus is now a pandemic


Updated Thursday 12 March

As the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus COVID-19 a pandemic with the infection now present in 114 countries, researchers said the virus can live in the air for several hours and on some surfaces for three days.

By using the word “pandemic”, the United Nations health agency sought to ensure countries not reacting to the untreatable virus take action to contain and remove coronavirus.

The change of terminology from epidemic to “pandemic” followed detailed consultations about the spread of Covid-19 with health experts inside and outside the WHO.

pandemic, WHO, coronavirus The coronavirus has spread to more than 114 countries (in yellow) with mainland China (in red) reporting the highest number of cases and subsequent deaths.

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people in the response.

“We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.

“In the past two weeks, the number of cases of Covid-19 outside China has increased 13-fold and the number of affected countries has tripled. There are now more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people have lost their lives. Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals.

“In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of Covid-19 cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” he warned.

Europe has become the new epicentre of the coronavirus. Italy, which has already closed its borders, announced that all shops and businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores would be closed nationwide beginning on Thursday.

“If you want to be blunt, Europe is the new China,” said Robert Redfield, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scientists from the US Health Department’s National Institutes of Health, Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, have found that the novel coronavirus can live in the air for several hours and on some surfaces for as long as two to three days.

Their work, published on Wednesday (US time), did not prove that anyone has been infected through breathing it from the air or by touching contaminated surfaces, but researchers said it was theoretically possible.

For the study, researchers used a nebuliser device to put samples of COVID-19 into the air, imitating what might happen if an infected person coughed or made the virus airborne some other way.

They found that the virus could be detected up to 3 hours later in the air, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel.

“It’s a solid piece of work that answers questions people have been asking,” and shows the value and importance of the hygiene advice that public health officials have been stressing, Julie Fischer, a microbiology professor at Georgetown University, told the New York Post.


“What we need to be doing is washing our hands, being aware that people who are infected may be contaminating surfaces,” and keeping hands away from the face, she said.

WHO advises that you:

  • Stockpile prescription medicine, if possible;
  • Have a plan to take care of sick family members while trying not to get infected;
  • Cross-train key staff at work so a person’s absence would not derail a workplace’s ability to function;
  • Practice touching your faces less;
  • Replace handshakes with elbow-bumps (the “Ebola handshake”);
  • Build harm-reduction habits like pushing elevator buttons with a knuckle instead of a fingertip.

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