“We are at a turning point”: The coronavirus outbreak is looking more like a pandemic

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During the past two months, as the new coronavirus outbreak spiraled into a global threat, countries around the world have scrambled to impose travel bans, quarantine millions, and isolate sick people in an attempt to stop the spread of the new virus.

Yet, as of Tuesday, there were more than 80,000 cases of Covid-19 in nearly 40 countries, including case tolls in Italy, Iran, and South Korea that have surged almost overnight, and an ongoing outbreak on a cruise ship off Japan.

The likelihood that we’re in a pandemic, a new disease that spreads around the world — or that we’re hurtling toward one — seems higher than just a week ago. That means more countries are likely to see spread of the virus within their borders very soon — and that includes the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned Tuesday.

“The data over the last week, and the spread in other countries, has raised our level of concern and our level of expectation we’re going to have community spread here,” said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at CDC. “It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”

Other public health experts agreed, telling Vox that containing the virus — fully halting its spread — may no longer be possible.

“I don’t think the answer is shutting down the world to stop this virus. It’s already out,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

“When several countries have widespread transmission, then spillover to other countries is inevitable,” said Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

If stopping the virus is increasingly out of reach, health officials will have to accept that it’s everywhere and move into a new phase in their response strategy. (To be clear, a disease outbreak can become a pandemic without being especially severe or fatal.)

“We are at a turning point in the Covid-19 epidemic,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University. “We must prepare for the foreseeable possibility, even probability, that Covid-19 may soon become a pandemic affecting countries on virtually all continents.”

A look at new outbreaks outside China, and what they tell us about how this virus is moving, helps explain why.