Health and Science

WHO says threat of pandemic 'has become very real' even as China recoveries rise

Key Points
  • "Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on a conference call Monday.
  • While the virus is slowing in China, where it originated in December, it's picking up pace across other parts of the world, spreading to more than 100 countries.
  • The virus has infected more than 111,300 people around the world, killing at least 3,892, according to Johns Hopkins University.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference following an emergency talks over the new SARS-like virus spreading in China and other nations in Geneva on January 22, 2020.
Pierre Albouy | AFP | Getty Images

The threat of a global pandemic is rising as the new coronavirus rapidly spreads across the world from Asia, to Europe, the Middle East and now parts of the United States, World Health Organization officials said Monday.

"Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on a conference call from the organization's Geneva headquarters Monday.

While the virus is slowing in China, where it originated in December, it's picking up pace across other parts of the world, spreading to more than 100 countries with more than 111,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Korea has the most cases outside of China with roughly 7,500 infections, followed closely by Italy and Iran, which both had more than 7,000 cases as of Monday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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In the U.S., the number of cases erupted over the last week to more than 560 spread across at least 30 states, according to Johns Hopkins.

WHO officials stopped just short of calling a global pandemic, indicating that they are getting closer to making the declaration — even as China and Singapore appear to have successfully contained the spread in their countries. 

"When you reach 100 countries and when you reach 100,000 cases, it is time to step back and think, two weeks ago it was 30 countries," said Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of the WHO's emergencies program. 

Tedros said only a handful of countries "have signs of sustained community transmission," adding that it's still too early for world leaders to give up. 

He said 70% of the more than 80,000 confirmed cases in China have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, saying the outbreak there may be ending.  

"China is bringing its epidemic under control," he said. 

While China appears to be on the mend, Ryan said the disease hasn't "run its course" in other nations. In fact, he said, some countries are just importing their first cases.

"We're still very much in the up cycle of this epidemic, and there are still a number of miles to go," Ryan said.

WHO officials said some countries have been able to slow down, and even stop, transmission — pointing to Singapore. Whether a country controls an outbreak depends on how quickly and how much world leaders do to contain the spread in their individual countries. 

"It is in our hands. ... In many countries, it will get worse before it gets better," said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead of WHO's emergencies program. Roughly 93% of the global cases are concentrated in four countries: China, Korea, Italy and Iran, they said. Roughly 80 countries have less than 100 cases each. "Absolutely, we see a light at the end of the tunnel, but how quickly we get there depends on what countries do."

WHO officials shed more light on the severity of the disease. They have previously said about 80% of the people who catch COVID-19 develop mild symptoms while 20% of the patients develop severe symptoms. The "mild" cases include mild forms of pneumonia, Van Kerkhove said.

WHO officials said some medical conditions, including heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes, will place people at a higher risk for death. In China, the death rates among people over 80 is the highest — over 20%.

Tedros said it's "dangerous" to assume COVID-19 kills only older people.

"The death rate from this outbreak is high. We shouldn't categorize by young or senior. Of course to understand the epidemiology, it's fine to do that, but for action, I think every life matters," Tedros said. "This is a moral decay if we try to categorize it that way, a moral decay of society."

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