WHO Head Warns of ‘Potential Pandemic’ after Initially Praising China’s Response to Coronavirus

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference on the coronavirus in Geneva, Switzerland, February 24, 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom said Monday that the coronavirus “absolutely” has the potential to be a global pandemic, and stated that the recent spike in cases outside of China “is certainly very concerning.”

Adhanom, speaking at the WHO’s daily press briefing on updates to the coronavirus, said that the organization was now assessing whether the virus, which originated in China, was reaching pandemic-levels as cases continued to be reported outside of China. As of Monday, there have been more than 2,000 cases reported outside of China, with surges in South Korea, Iran, and Italy raising concerns.

“Our decision about whether to use the word ‘pandemic’ to describe an epidemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of disease it causes and the impact it has on the whole of society,” he explained.

While praising China for taking measures to avoid a “significant number” of cases, Adhanom admitted that the virus could have a greater global impact. Last week, the WHO praised China despite fears that Beijing was misstating the number of cases after numerous changes to its counting criteria.

“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet,” he said, adding that “we must focus on containment, while doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic.”

Adhanom closed by outlining three “priorities” for the international community to work together against the virus, including the safeguarding of health workers, the protection of those most susceptible to the disease — including the elderly and the infirm, and the assisting of those countries “that are the most vulnerable.”

In January, the WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” while Adhanom insisted that “this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China.”

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