(CN) – The World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic Wednesday and urged all countries to do more to control the spread of the respiratory disease.
“It can be characterized as a pandemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said during a news conference at the agency's headquarters in Geneva. “It is a word that cannot be used lightly.”
The WHO said it was time for countries to step up and take the spread of the virus seriously.
In the past two weeks, Tedros said the number of infections around the world has increased 13-fold and that there has been a tripling of nations reporting cases of COVID-19, the name for this lethal virus new to humans. He said it was time for countries to “scale up” their response to the threat. Scientists have been calling it a pandemic for weeks.
The announcement caused more turmoil on financial markets, which registered sharp declines, and came on another day of grim news with Italy reporting 196 more deaths, bringing its total of deaths to 827. On Wednesday evening, the Italian government took the extraordinary step to tighten even further a nationwide quarantine by ordering most businesses to shut down except for those considered essential, such as food stores, pharmacies and certain manufacturers. The new restrictions take effect Thursday.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that up to 70% of Germans could become infected unless action is taken. The number of infections, and deaths, rose in many European countries, including an alarming spike in Spain. The United States also reported more deaths and infections.
As of Wednesday, more than 118,000 confirmed cases have been detected globally in 114 countries, Tedros said. The WHO says the disease has caused 4,291 deaths worldwide.
But he also said the virus can be beaten back.
“We are convinced that although this is the first coronavirus to be labeled as a pandemic, at the same time we believe it will be first to be contained or controlled,” Tedros said.
Still, in the coming weeks the disease likely will spread and the numbers of dead will increase, he warned.
Besides its spread outside China, he said he was concerned about “alarming levels of inaction.” He did not single out any country, but his remarks seemed directed at U.S. President Donald Trump, who has downplayed the seriousness of the epidemic. Trump has said the virus will disappear soon, and he even claimed it was a “hoax” Democrats want to use against him.
“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” Tedros said about his agency's warnings since the disease struck Wuhan, China, in December.
By declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, he said he hopes the world will take urgent action to suppress the virus, which he said can be done with the right steps. He told countries to work together and have “solidarity” for those nations in need.
The WHO is particularly worried at the moment about Iran, which is in the midst of a devastating outbreak and, largely due to its economic isolation caused by U.S. sanctions, is struggling with shortages in medicine and medical equipment. China and the WHO have shipped supplies to Iran. The country reported a record increase of infections Wednesday, bringing its cases to about 9,000 and deaths to 354, though the extent of the outbreak may be worse than official counts.
“From reports we have on the ground, we know Iran is doing its best,” Tedros said. “They need loads of supplies. There is still a shortage.”
He remains hopeful about stopping the pandemic and pointed to drastic and aggressive steps taken by China, South Korea and Singapore as proof the virus can be contained. China said it had only 24 new cases and 22 more deaths on Wednesday while a lockdown at the outbreak's epicenter is being partially lifted.
Tedros also praised Italy's response, which has included a nationwide quarantine, rigorous testing and tracking people who may have come into contact with the virus.
“It would be a mistake to abandon the containment strategy,” he said. “We have seen progress in countries that have shown this.”
But he said some countries are failing to do enough testing, not sufficiently tracking the disease, inadequately protecting medical staff from getting infected, not doing enough to coordinate efforts between national and regional levels, and doing a poor job of telling their citizens about the virus' risks.
He said countries need to do more to avoid outbreaks that overwhelm health care systems.
“First, prepare and be ready,” Tedros said in listing the steps needed to contain the virus. “Second, detect, protect and treat; third, reduce transmission; and fourth, innovate and learn.”
Tedros emphasized the virus can be stopped. He noted that 90% of the infections have so far occurred in four countries – China, South Korea, Iran and Italy.
Outside these epicenters, 47 countries have reported a limited number of cases and they still can “cut [the virus] from the bud,” he said. Meanwhile, 81 other countries have not yet reported any cases and they “should give no ground to let this virus take root.”
Most countries are taking steps to contain the outbreak. For instance, India and Kuwait are banning foreign visitors, and Guatemala has barred Europeans.
“We should double down, we should be more aggressive,” Tedros said.
Michael Ryan, the head of the WHO's emergency program, said a pandemic declaration does not trigger any set of legal requirements or laws, but rather is meant to galvanize “the world to fight.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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