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Threat of coronavirus pandemic ‘very real’: WHO director

Coronavirus outbreak: WHO calls threat of COVID-19 pandemic ‘very real’
WATCH: The World Health Organization director-general said Monday that the threat of a COVID-19 pandemic has become "very real."

The threat of the novel coronavirus becoming a pandemic is very real, the World Health Organization said, though it’s still shying away from making a declaration.

“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference Monday.

READ MORE: UN declines to declare pandemic despite surge in coronavirus across the globe

According to the WHO, cases of COVID-19 have been found in more than 100 countries. Many countries have reported only travel-related cases or have a handful of cases, however in a few — notably Iran, Italy and South Korea — the virus appears to be spreading throughout the community.

In total, there are more than 111,000 cases worldwide, according to data compiled by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. There are currently 71 confirmed and presumptive cases in Canada, officials said Monday.

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Coronavirus outbreak: If COVID-19 was standard flu, WHO would’ve declared a pandemic ‘ages ago’
Coronavirus outbreak: If COVID-19 was standard flu, WHO would’ve declared a pandemic ‘ages ago’

But the virus can still be controlled, Tedros insisted.

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“The bottom line is we are not at the mercy of the virus,” he said.

Tedros said countries must still concentrate on both containing the virus and mitigating its impact.

READ MORE: Declaring coronavirus outbreak a pandemic would have ‘pros and cons,’ says expert

There’s no widely accepted definition of “pandemic,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program. Generally, the organization says it’s the worldwide spread of a new disease — though it doesn’t define a specific threshold.

To Ryan, the word implies the disease has reached a point where its spread from country to country cannot be controlled.

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When does an outbreak become a pandemic?
When does an outbreak become a pandemic?

This has implications for how countries deal with the outbreak, he suggested.

“It’s not an avoidance of the word, but the word is important because in many situations, the word involves countries moving purely to a mitigation approach,” he said. This means they stop measures to contain the virus — something the WHO says is still possible, pointing to countries like Singapore, which seem to have slowed the spread.

“Unlike flu, we can still push this back,” he said. “We can still significantly slow down this virus.”

“So the word for us is not a problem. The issue is what the reaction to the word will be.”

He hopes that if the WHO eventually calls COVID-19 a pandemic, countries won’t stop trying to control it.

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“Will we use it as a call to action?” he asked.

“Will we use it to fight, or will we use that word to give up?”