The World Health Organization has resisted labeling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, but multiple sharp rises in infections and deaths in countries around the globe mean that stance is likely to change very soon.
A pandemic is described as an infectious disease that is spreading out of control in different regions of the world, and on Tuesday, the world saw further evidence that efforts to contain the coronavirus are failing.
China remains the epicenter of the outbreak, with over 77,000 confirmed infections and more than 2,6000 deaths, but there's a growing number of countries showing signs of large-scale outbreaks.
In South Korea, the number of infections spiked again Tuesday, to almost 1,000 cases, with the majority of the cases reported in the city of Daegu. An 11th death linked to the outbreak was reported on Tuesday afternoon.
“We call each other here and half-jokingly ask whether they are alive and tell each other not to wander around,” Choe Hee-suk, a 37-year-old office worker in Daegu, told AP.
At least half a dozen countries have banned those traveling from South Korea, with nine other countries imposing restrictions on travelers from the Asian nation, including 14-day quarantine periods.
In Italy, authorities reported Tuesday morning that another 40 coronavirus cases had been detected in the north of the country since Monday evening, bringing the total to 272. So far, seven people in Italy have died as a result of the infections.
Possibly the most worrying aspect of the spike in cases in Italy is that authorities have yet to identify Patient Zero. The arrival of the coronavirus there happened with no prior warning, leading to speculation that it was spread by an asymptomatic carrier.
Meanwhile, in Iran four more people were reported to have died from the coronavirus, putting the official death toll at 16. The country has 95 confirmed cases, and the semi-official ILNA news agency reported Tuesday that Iran’s deputy health minister was among those infected.
However, a lawmaker from the city of Qom has claimed the death toll is much higher, telling parliament on Monday that at least 50 people had died in his hometown alone since February 13.
Iran’s health ministry has continued to deny these allegations, but Ahmad Amiriabadi Farahani has persisted in his claims. He alleged on Twitter that the city's hospital staff lied on death certificates to hide the coronavirus death toll, claiming they labeled death as “acute respiratory illness” even though they died in coronavirus quarantine ward.
The health ministry said Monday that the source of the outbreak was 700 Chinese clerical students who attend Qom’s seminaries but it was unclear when those students traveled from China.
In the Spanish tourist resort of Tenerife on Tuesday morning, a hotel quarantined 1,000 guests after an Italian guest tested positive for the coronavirus.
The rapid spike in cases outside of China has led to questions about when the World Health Organization may label the outbreak as a pandemic.
“There’s a lot of speculation about whether these increases mean that this epidemic has now become a pandemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said during a press conference on Monday. “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
But some experts say the evidence from South Korea, Italy, and Iran shows that what the world is facing is indeed a pandemic.
“We now consider this to be a pandemic in all but name, and it’s only a matter of time before the World Health Organization starts to use the term in its communications,” Bharat Pankhania, from the University of Exeter Medical School, told the Guardian. “This gives us focus and tells us that the virus is now appearing in other countries and transmitting far afield from China.”
Cover: Officials in protective suits disinfect a hall in Seoul on Feb. 25, 2020, amid the spread of a new coronavirus. (Kyodo via AP Images)