Coronavirus cases have now exceeded 15,000 globally, as health workers struggle to contain the deadly pathogen in China where it began. While the disease, known as 2019-nCoV, has spread slowly beyond the far east, health officials worry infections may pick up.
What is a pandemic?
Health authorities declare a pandemic when an emerging virus comprehensively infects the locale it originated in and then spreads around the world.
The main culprits leading to a pandemic are new viruses, which surprise immune systems and health officials alike.
While influenza viruses such as swine flu operate on a seasonal basis and can infect people around the world, health officials have dealt with them before, making them less of a threat.
New viruses often blindside health officials, and cases can quickly snowball under the radar.
Typically, new viruses have emerged first in animals, which jump the species barrier to humans via prolonged contact.
Diseases such as seasonal influenza also spread around the world, but with less severity due to population immunity.
With new diseases, this immunity is absent, meaning cases can be more severe, and in some cases, deadly.
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Could coronavirus become a pandemic?
Authorities initially identified 2019-nCoV as a “pneumonia-like” illness, before they concluded it was a member of the coronavirus family.
When they learned the nature of the disease, the Chinese government effectively dealt with cases by putting several cities under quarantine.
Nevertheless, cases spread beyond China’s borders and into the rest of the world, becoming an epidemic as cases cropped up in more than 20 other countries.
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Health experts are concerned the virus could spread further but have hesitated to declare a pandemic.
World Health Organisation (WHO) pandemic phases outline the disease is just one step away from becoming one, however.
Officials with the organisation state 2019-nCoV is spreading slowly outside China, making them hesitant to declare a pandemic.
Instead, the WHO has declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
Top officials agree 2019-nCoV cases are getting close to pandemic level, however.
Dr Anthony S Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said 2019-nCoV could become a pandemic soon.
He told the New York Times: “It’s very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic.
“But will it be catastrophic? I don’t know.”
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