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Could the new coronavirus go from epidemic to pandemic? Here’s what that means


Dozens of new cases of the novel coronavirus are being identified almost daily. While it’s been called an “outbreak,” an “epidemic” and a “crisis,” the illness that’s sickened more than 17,000 people is not a pandemic — at least not yet.

The World Health Organization defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.” The illness spreads around the world and typically affects a large number of people across a wide area.

So far, 2019-nCoV, as the new coronavirus is being formally called, doesn’t meet that definition.

“We would only call this a pandemic in the instance that there are multiple, ongoing chains of novel coronavirus transmission outside of China affecting a larger population,” says Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital.

“We’re not there yet.”

Cases of the novel coronavirus are increasing rapidly, but so far, the transmission of the influenza-like illness has been limited.

China is working around the clock to try and contain the virus. A 1,000-bed hospital dedicated to coronavirus patients was built in just 10 days. It is situated in China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, which has largely been quarantined from the rest of the country.

Other countries with cases — including Canada and United States — have issued high-level travel advisories about travel to China.

It’s too soon to say whether these measures will be enough, Bogoch said, or whether the outbreak will continue to evolve into a pandemic.

“Regardless, all efforts should be made to control this infection at the source while still preparing for the possibility that this may not be contained,” he said.

Compounding the fears of spread across borders is the possibility that the virus may be contagious before the infected person shows symptoms. If true, this would make it far more difficult to identify cases and could hinder containment. It would also call to question how effective tactics like quarantines are in this outbreak.

The transmissibility of the disease is part of the reason why researchers at the University of Hong Kong are calling for “substantial, even draconian, measures… that limit population mobility” in all virus-affected areas.

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