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Coronavirus is now a pandemic. What does that mean?

The World Health Organization on Wednesday officially declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. The WHO defines a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease." 

Coronavirus is now a pandemic. What does that mean?
© Handout. An illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depicts the 2019 Novel Coronavirus

By Audrey McNamara, CBS News
 
There are now more than 118,000 confirmed coronavirus cases reported across at least 114 countries.

"When we say pandemic we mean it's gone all around the world. Clearly we hit that a while ago," said CBS Medical Contributor Dr. David Agus.

"It is a term that raises the alarms," Agus added. "In many respects I want people on edge... but this definition probably should have happened weeks ago."

When he announced the new designation at a press conference Wednesday, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that pandemic is not a word the WHO uses "lightly or carelessly."

"It's a word that if misused can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death," he said.

So far, over 4,000 people have died from the coronavirus worldwide, and "thousands more" are still fighting off the virus, he added.

Agus said the WHO may have waited until now to make the distinction due to their premature use of the word during the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak. According to Agus, the WHO designated H1N1 as a pandemic, only to have the virus "peter out."

Neither the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, nor the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) outbr

The WHO is not expecting the same to happen with the novel coronavirus.

"In the days and weeks ahead we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher," the WHO director said Wednesday.

"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we're deeply concerned, both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction."

Despite the new distinction, he emphasized that the WHO's strategy has not faltered.

"Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO's assessment of the threat posed by the virus," he said. "It doesn't change what WHO is doing, and it doesn't change what countries should do," he said.

"We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: All countries can still change the course of this pandemic."

More than 90% of coronavirus cases are in just four countries — and two of those, China and South Korea, have "significantly declining epidemics," according to the WHO. Almost 60 countries have reported 10 cases or less.

The director urged countries to "detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in response."

"Those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases from becoming clusters, and those clusters becoming community transmission," he said.

Coronavirus is now a pandemic. What does that mean?
(From Left to Right) World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme Director Michael Ryan, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove attend a daily press briefing on COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on March 11, 2020. - WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced on March 11, 2020, that the new coronavirus outbreak can now be characterized as a pandemic. (© Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images)

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