Coronavirus explained: what is a pandemic and could the coronavirus outbreak become one?

On Friday, the director general of the World Health Organisation warned time was running out to stop the spread of Covid-19

Coronavirus: What is a pandemic?

Coronavirus: What is a pandemic?
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On Friday, the director general of the World Health Organisation warned time was running out to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said containment was still possible, but that the window of opportunity was narrowing.

Since then, cases of Covid-19 have exploded in South Korea, which recorded 763 coronavirus infections and seven deaths as of Monday, up from just 156 cases on Friday.

Italy has also seen the number of its confirmed cases spiral, making it the worst affected country in Europe. As of Monday, it had 157 confirmed cases across the country and three deaths, with several towns in lockdown.

Cases have also rocketed in Iran, from none last Tuesday to 43 confirmed infections and 12 deaths as of Monday.

The virus also continues its inexorable spread in China, which has announced 409 new cases and 150 deaths, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 77,345. Of them, 24,794 have so far recovered and 2,592 have died.

Covid-19 has now infected people in 33 countries and territories across multiple continents and experts say a pandemic is now looking increasingly likely.

But what does that mean? The National explains.

What is a pandemic?

Put simply, a pandemic is when epidemics are occurring in multiple countries and continents at the same time. The disease must also be infectious, which rules out conditions like cancer. And it must be transmitted locally with no clear link to the original source of the outbreak, which in this case is China.

Have there been pandemics before?

Yes, several. The first pandemic of the 21st century was the swine flu outbreak which occurred in 2009 and 2010. Most cases were mild but it killed an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 people in the first year alone.

The global HIV/AIDS outbreak is also considered a pandemic, having killed more than 36 million people since 1981.

But the most famous and deadly pandemic in modern history was the Spanish flu outbreak, which infected a third of the world’s population in 1918 and killed as many as 50 million people in just 18 months.

Did experts see this coming?

Many experts and organisations believed the next pandemic would probably result from an as yet unidentified strain of influenza.

But some, like the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, correctly identified the pandemic potential of a coronavirus.

The centre ran a computer simulation in late 2019 involving a strain of coronavirus that emerged from Brazil’s pig farms.

Nearly every country in the world would have had cases within 18 months in the simulation. In total, 65 million people died. That coronavirus was deadlier than Sars, but about as easy to catch as the flu.

The good news is scientists believe the new coronavirus is less deadly than Sars, but on the other hand that it is still highly contagious - much more so than flu.

On average, each person with flu goes on to infect around 1.3 others. With Covid-19, it is thought to be two to three people, with some studies describing cases with a much higher transmission rate.

"I have thought for a long time that the most likely virus that might cause a new pandemic would be a coronavirus," Eric Toner, a scientist at the centre was quoted as saying by Business Insider.

Why did the virus spread so quickly?

There are several aspects of Covid-19 which have fuelled its especially rapid spread. First, it is entirely new to the human population, having jumped from an animal - believed to be a bat - through an as yet unidentified intermediary.

That means no one has had any immunity to the virus, putting everybody at greater risk of catching it.

This photo taken on February 23, 2020 shows passengers wearing protective facemasks, amid concerns of the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, at the arrival area of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. / AFP / Romeo GACAD
Travellers in Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok wear protective facemasks amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19. AFP / Romeo GACAD

Second, the virus appears to be highly transmissible and third, because the virus has a long incubation period of between 0 to 14 days, people can pass it on others before they develop symptoms themselves.

These factors combined have made efforts to contain Covid-19 practically impossible, even with the best infection control measures in place.

What changes in a pandemic?

The WHO will require governments to mobilise their entire health system, distributing “personal protective equipment” and “antivirals and other medical supplies in accordance with national plans”.

Experts say quarantines, travel restrictions and contact tracing may also end as the focus moves from preventing the spread from outside the country to limiting transmissions as much as possible inside.