What is a Global Pandemic? WHO Officially Declares Coronavirus to Be a Pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified the global outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) a "pandemic," noting that it had not chosen to use the term "lightly or carelessly."

More than 120,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported in more than 100 countries, with more than 4,300 people having died from the infection. While there are currently more than 50,000 active cases, more than 70,000 people have also recovered from the virus.

"Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO said on Wednesday.

Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that the classification of the outbreak as a "pandemic" did not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus. "It doesn't change what WHO is doing, and it doesn't change what countries should do," he said.

The WHO leader encouraged governments around the world to "detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response" to the virus. He assessed, optimistically, that the international community has a chance to curb the outbreak and prevent the spread of the infection.

Previously, the WHO had declared coronavirus to be a "global health emergency" in January, as the outbreak ballooned rapidly within China. Now, there are eight countries – including the U.S. – that have reported more than 1,000 confirmed cases.

Within the U.S., multiple states – including California, Washington and New York – have declared states of emergency as they grapple with the outbreak. However, the government has struggled to curb the spread of COVID-19, the illness cause by the novel coronavirus strain, and has failed to quickly expand testing efforts. While South Korea is capable of testing about 10,000 people per day, the U.S. is far behind with some states only able to test a few hundred people.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Program Director Michael Ryan, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove attend a daily press briefing on COVID-19 virus at the WHO headquaters on March 11 in Geneva FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty

WHO has said that the death rate from confirmed cases of the virus is about 3.4 percent. However, health experts have projected that the overall death toll might be 2 percent or less. They have noted that there are almost certainly many more mild infections that have gone unreported and unconfirmed.

While the death rate is significantly higher than the common flu, young people appear to be less at risk from succumbing to the virus. The rate of death appears to be higher in elderly people, particularly those over the age of 80. Meanwhile, pre-existing health conditions – such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory problems – appear to be correlated with more serious complications stemming from COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people wash their hands and avoid touching their face in an effort to avoid contracting the virus. People can also avoid attending events or visiting crowded places. Only those who are sick, or who are caring for someone who is ill, are advised to wear face masks.

This article has been updated with additional information.