World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus officially declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, a pandemic on Wednesday. COVID-19 had previously been designated as a global health emergency in January after the number of cases of the virus soared in China.

From epidemic to pandemic

An epidemic occurs when a disease affects many people with the number of cases above what would be normally expected. A pandemic occurs when an epidemic spreads across the world and affects a large number of people.

WHO officials have carefully avoided directly calling the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until today. They have come close, though, with Ghebreyesus stating on Monday that "the threat of a pandemic has become very real."

Hands holding small globe with a mask around the globe that has "coronavirus" written on it

Image source: Getty Images.

Now, however, the sheer scale of the numbers has prompted WHO to declare COVID-19 as a pandemic. There have been more than 120,000 people in at least 114 countries who have been infected by the novel coronavirus. So far, more than 4,000 individuals across the world have died from COVID-19.

What's next?

Governments and private companies are scrambling to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. Gilead Sciences (GILD -2.65%) appears to be in the lead position in testing a potential antiviral treatment for the disease. The big biotech is currently conducting two late-stage clinical studies evaluating remdesevir in treating COVID-19. Several drugmakers are also rushing to test experimental COVID-19 vaccines.

In the meantime, health experts recommend washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and limiting contact with others to reduce the chances of exposure to the coronavirus.