Top CDC official tells Congress coronavirus almost qualifies as a global pandemic

A doctor stands in front of two 3D-reconstructed lung models of a newly diagnosed coronavirus pneumonia patient during a 5G long-distance consultation at the First Affiliated Hospital of Kunming Medical University on March 2, 2020 in Kunming, Yunnan Province of China.

Kang Ping | China News Service | Getty Images

The World Health Organization will likely deem the COVID-19 coronavirus a global pandemic once sustained person-to-person spread takes hold outside China, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said Tuesday.

The current outbreak already meets two of the three main criteria under the technical designation of a pandemic, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, said in prepared remarks to be presented before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

“It is a new virus, and it is capable of person-to-person spread,” she said. “If sustained person-to-person spread in the community takes hold outside China, this will increase the likelihood that the WHO will deem it a global pandemic.”

On Monday, WHO officials said the number of new coronavirus cases outside China was almost 9 times higher than that inside the country over the last 24 hours.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said health officials would not “hesitate” to declare the outbreak a pandemic if “that’s what the evidence suggests.” On Friday at a press briefing, he said that most cases of COVID-19 can still be traced to known contacts or clusters of cases and there isn’t any “evidence as yet that the virus is spreading freely in communities.” That’s one reason why WHO hasn’t declared the outbreak a pandemic, Tedros said Friday.

Schuchat said Tuesday that the CDC, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has conducted 49,827 passenger screenings at airports. The CDC has also deployed more than 1,500 staff from CDC headquarters, overseas and field deployments to help with response efforts, she said.

“CDC’s most expert and practiced infectious disease and public health experts are dedicated to this response 24/7 to protect the American people,” she said. “The agency’s approach to COVID-19 is built upon decades of experience with
prior infectious disease emergencies including responses to SARS, MERS, and Ebola, and to pandemic influenza.”

As of Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are 91 cases of COVID-19 in the United States.

At least 48 of those cases are repatriates from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship, according to an update on the agency’s website. At least 17 cases — 12 confirmed and 5 presumptive positive — are travel-related infections. Twenty-six cases — 4 confirmed and 22 presumptive positive— are from human-to-human interaction, according to the CDC.

Washington state health officials confirmed at least six deaths outside of Seattle in recent days. 

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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