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Coronavirus outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic? Terrifying definitions and why they matter

Wuhan coronavirus is on track to be a triple winner.

Coronavirus outbreak, epidemic, or pandemic? Terrifying definitions and why they matter
[Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images]
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The case count for the coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China, rose to nearly 17,500 over the weekend, and experts began throwing around the P word. “It is very, very transmissible, and it almost certainly is going to be a pandemic,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told The New York Times.

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Pandemic! Yikes. What does that mean? A pandemic is a global outbreak of a disease on multiple continents. That’s generally more ominous than an epidemic, which is widespread disease within a population. An outbreak is a vaguer term. It essentially means more people than expected with a disease, as few as one. The coronavirus will soon be a triple winner, meeting all three definitions.

The biggest pandemic risk lies in Africa, where many countries lack the infrastructure to test for the coronavirus, let alone treat large numbers of infected people and manage an outbreak. A handful of suspected cases have been reported in Africa.

Fortunately, today’s coronavirus news is not entirely grim: While the reported death rate is currently hovering around 2%, the actual death rate may be significantly lower, as experts say that roughly 100,000 people are probably infected, likely with mild cases that have not been reported.

In short: It may be an outbreak, but it’s not Outbreak