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WHO says no longer uses 'pandemic' category, but virus still emergency

[GENEVA] The World Health Organization (WHO) no longer has a process for declaring a pandemic, but the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak remains an international emergency, a spokesman said on Monday.

Fears of a coronavirus pandemic grew on Monday after sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea, although China relaxed restrictions on movement in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections eased.

The Geneva-based agency declared the H1N1 swine flu outbreak a pandemic in 2009, which turned out to be mild, leading to some criticism after pharmaceutical companies rushed development of vaccines and drugs.

WHO declared the novel coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan, China in December a public health emergency of international concern, known as a PHEIC, on Jan 30. It was aimed at helping countries with weaker health systems shore up their defences.

Since then the virus has spread, with more than 77,000 known infections in China, including 2,445 deaths, and 1,769 cases and 17 deaths in 28 other countries, the latest WHO figures show. South Korea, Japan and Italy are experiencing large outbreaks.

"There is no official category (for a pandemic)," WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said.

"WHO does not use the old phasing system that some people may be familiar with from 2009. Under the IHR (International Health Regulations), WHO has declared a public health emergency of international concern."

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told reporters on Friday: "I would like to assure you we are following this virus 24/7 round the clock... As we speak our situation is that we are still in a phase where containment is possible with a narrowing window of opportunity."