The spread of the coronavirus across more than 100 countries now qualifies as a global pandemic, World Health Organization officials said on Wednesday, confirming what many epidemiologists have been saying for weeks.
Until now, the W.H.O. had avoided using the term to describe the epidemic leapfrogging across the world, for fear of giving the impression that it was unstoppable and countries would give up on trying to contain it.
The organization had said earlier in the outbreak that it no longer officially declared when an epidemic reaches pandemic proportions, preferring instead to declare global public health emergencies.
WHO has now officially labeled coronavirus a pandemic.
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) March 11, 2020
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the W.H.O., said at a news conference in Geneva.
“We cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough,” he added. “All countries can still change the course of this pandemic.”
But now there is evidence on six continents of sustained transmission of the virus, which has infected more than 120,000 people and killed more than 4,300, and by most scientific measures the spread qualifies as a pandemic.
The designation itself is largely symbolic, but public health officials know that the public will hear in the word elements of danger and risk.
According to the W.H.O., an epidemic is defined as a regional outbreak of an illness that spreads unexpectedly. In 2010, it defined a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease” that affects large numbers of people.
The C.D.C. says it is “an epidemic that has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people.”
The W.H.O. had not declared a pandemic since 2009, when it gave that designation to a new strain of H1N1 influenza.