WHO says coronavirus is a pandemic, UK and Italy announce big war chests to fight it

March 12, 2020 - 1:22 AM
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A worker in a protective suit disinfects a bus due to coronavirus concerns in Istanbul, Turkey March 11, 2020. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

LONDON/ROME— The World Health Organization said for the first time on Wednesday that it now sees the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic.

“We are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday.

“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.”

The coronavirus, which emerged in China in December, has spread around the world, halting industry, bringing flights to a standstill, closing schools and forcing the postponement of sporting events and concerts. Even the Tokyo Summer Olympics are in question.

A pandemic is an epidemic on a far greater geographic scale that affects a much large number of people.

Before the WHO’s comments, Britain and Italy announced multi-billion-dollar war chests to fight the disease and the United States said it was considering new steps.

The Bank of England joined many other countries in cutting interest rates, by half a percentage point, and announced support for bank lending.

The United States, where the S&P 500 stock index was down almost 4%, said its steps could include tax relief, to combat the virus that could put hundreds of billions of dollars into the U.S. economy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said up to 70% of the population was likely to be infected as the virus spreads around the world in the absence of a cure.

“When the virus is out there, the population has no immunity and no therapy exists, then 60 to 70% of the population will be infected,” she told a news conference in Berlin.

A rebound in stocks ran out of steam on Wednesday despite the Bank of England move. Money markets are fully pricing in a further 10 basis-point cut by the European Central Bank when it meets on Thursday.

As of Tuesday’s close, $8.1 trillion in value has been erased from global stock markets in the recent rout.

More than 119,100 people have been infected by the coronavirus across the world and 4,298 have died, the vast majority in China, according to a Reuters tally. Italy has had 10,149 cases and 631 deaths. Iran has had 9,000 cases and 354 deaths. The United States has 975 cases and 30 deaths.

—Reporting by Paul Sandle and David Milliken in London; David Lawder in Washington; Thomas Escritt and Paul Carrel in Berlin; Giuseppe Fonte and Giulia Segreti in Rome; Ryan Woo in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Timothy Heritage