It is my understanding that "epidemic" is an abnormally high amount of cases than expected. "Pandemic" refers to a epidemic that crosses continents (Please correct my understanding if it is wrong).

My question is should coronavirus (that is, covid-19) be considered a "pandemic" ar this point, or is there some other criteria it would need to fulfill to be considered a "pandemic"? Perhaps an organization like WHO would need to designate it as a "pandemic"?

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    You are specifically referring to covid-19 right? You could use the tag covid-19 Mar 4, 2020 at 0:52
  • @user8473907 Yes, sorry about that. Didn't see a coronavirus tag, and didn't check for a covid-19 tag.
    – Chipster
    Mar 4, 2020 at 2:53
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    @Chipster Important to note is that there are lots of "coronavirus" strains - including ones that are endemic and are one of the causes of the common cold. The popular press seems to have settled on that term because it was used early and caught on, but from any sort of professional/scientific description it's really not a good name. It would be like telling your family you have a new pet "mammal" - from context, they could guess you are probably talking about a cat or dog, but if you just call it your new pet mammal it could also be a gerbil, mouse, or chimpanzee.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 4, 2020 at 3:45

1 Answer 1


note: as can be expected from a dynamic event, this answer has changed a bit. The WHO now considers COVID-19 a pandemic; when this answer was initially written, they did not: see the update at the end.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as reported by CNN:

"It really is borderline semantics, to be honest with you," Fauci said.

"I think you could have people arguing each end of it," he said. "Pandemics mean different things to different people."

The word pandemic itself refers to:

an epidemic of disease that has spread across a large region; for instance multiple continents, or worldwide.

Given a broad definition like this one, it seems like yes, you could make a case that this is already a pandemic: COVID-19 is found on all richly inhabited continents and is continuing to spread.

However, there are still many places that have few cases compared to the outbreak centers, and only a tiny percentage of the world population is known to have been infected (the latest WHO report covers nearly 91,000 cases, a large number, but a tiny percentage: only 0.0012% of the world population of over 7.5 billion).

By comparison, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic infected 11–21% of the world population.

Organizations like the WHO have a more stringent operational definition of "pandemic", and none that I am aware of at this point have used the "pandemic" classification yet in an official pronouncement.

So, if instead of using a broad dictionary interpretation of "pandemic", we say: "considered a pandemic means a reputable global health organization classifies a pandemic", then the answer is:

No, COVID-19 is not yet considered a pandemic as of March 3rd, 2020.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter whether the pandemic term is applied or not. It makes most sense to think in terms of actual numbers and the situation "on the ground", and to compare those to past outbreaks rather than worrying about the definition or declaration of "pandemic."

Update March 11th

As of March 11th, 2020, the WHO now considers COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Consistent with this answer, the WHO stresses that this doesn't really change their guidance:

"Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this #coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do"- @DrTedros

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    What exactly would it need to do to end up being considered a pandemic by a global health organization? That is, is there a formal criteria set by global health organizations, or would it just need to have significantly more cases?
    – Chipster
    Mar 4, 2020 at 3:00
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    @Chipster The WHO does not seem to have any formal criteria as of now; see the first link in my answer, the CNN article, it covers this briefly. I also don't know how much of a priority it is for them to announce one way or another. I would say the main takeaway from this answer is that the pandemic/not pandemic distinction is kind of unimportant because it is mostly arbitrary.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 4, 2020 at 3:39
  • Okay, thank you.
    – Chipster
    Mar 4, 2020 at 3:42
  • Are there any updated numbers on the virus? I'm talking about the 0.0012% number specifically.
    – Chipster
    Mar 12, 2020 at 19:59
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    @Chipster Yeah, if there were a big update I would have changed it (like if it took 10X the cases from when I wrote the answer to when the WHO declared pandemic), but I think the key takeaway is that the exact number doesn't matter and is not part of the definition of pandemic, which, again, is ultimately fairly arbitrary :)
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 12, 2020 at 20:25

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