Professor Ian Mackay, a leading virologist from the University of Queensland, said while the coronavirus outbreak was not technically a pandemic yet because “we don’t have very widespread transmission in multiple countries”, the virus was “certainly not under control”.
He said the WHO position was thrown into question by “pretty widespread transmission” in Iran and Korea, which “seem to be adding quite a number of cases each day”.
“It’s really confusing messaging coming out of the WHO around the whole thing that we’re seeing at the moment and I don’t think that helps the public feel safe or secure,” he said.
The WHO defines a pandemic as the sustained community transmission of a deadly pathogen in multiple countries around the world, and has held off from using the term to describe the coronavirus – known as Covid-19 – because most cases outside of China were spread by people who had travelled to affected regions or had close contact with an infected person.
The virus has now killed 2814 people and infected more than 82,750 in 47 countries, including about 57 deaths and 3,700 infections in countries outside of China – which now account for about three quarters of new infections – including Iran, Italy, Lithuania, France, Germany, Greece and Nigeria.
Professor MacIntyre said the WHO was likely waiting to see three generations of community transmission before declaring the coronavirus to be a global pandemic, saying it could take four to six weeks “to see new chains of transmission after each incubation period”.
“I think it is a good idea to activate our pandemic plan and get everyone ready,” she said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday that people should go about their daily business and not worry about the virus, after Mr Morrison on Thursday announced the government was “effectively operating on the basis that there’s a pandemic”.
“At this point, coronavirus is contained in Australia,” Mr Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.
“The messaging of this week is because of the global spread, there is a high likelihood that it will come to Australia at some point.”
Professor Mackay said the success of China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan in containing infections “suggests we can slow the spread of the virus”, but that concern remained about the ability of countries with weaker health systems to deal with outbreaks.
“There are many around the world that are getting cases and what happens next over the next incubation periods will really tell us about the extent to which we need to say it’s out of control and pandemic is the best term to use,” he said.
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said the medical community was focused on “when, not if” the coronavirus became a true global pandemic.
“I don’t think it really matters right now [whether we call it a pandemic] because the Australian government has put in place an emergency response plan that can be escalated,” Dr Bartone said.
“It’s about preparedness for when it does hit, mobilising resources, ensuring supplies and stockpiles are put in place, information sharing.”
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva on Thursday that Iran, Italy and South Korea were at a “decisive point” in efforts to prevent a wider outbreak and that all nations should prepare.
“This virus has pandemic potential,” he said. “This is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action to prevent infection and save lives now.”
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.