On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization sounded the alarm about a new, unknown and deadly virus, declaring it a global health emergency.
“Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has turned into an unprecedented epidemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. to journalists.
Tedros was talking about what would later be called SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease now known as COVID-19, which is all too familiar today. As of January 25, 2023, nearly 700 million people have had confirmed infections with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and nearly 7 million people have died.
Hidden Viruses: How Pandemics Really Start
NPR is running a series on spillover viruses – that’s when animal pathogens jump into people. Researchers used to think of fallout as rare events. Now it is clear that they happen all the time. It has changed the way scientists search for deadly new viruses. To find out more, we traveled to Guatemala and Bangladesh, Borneo and South Africa.
We have a quiz for you to test your knowledge of fallout. But we would also like you to ask us questions. Send your overflow questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with “overflow” in the subject line. We’ll answer questions in a follow-up article when the series wraps up in mid-February.
Science is about making decisions and changing course as more and more evidence comes in, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been a case of science playing out on the world stage. Here are excerpts from NPR’s coverage at the time of this WHO announcement in January 2020. They show that NPR’s health officials, scientists and reporters have been working to bring the most accurate information available to people – but also show everything we needed to learn.
January 22: “Very contagious”
At the start of 2020, even experts still didn’t know what to expect from the novel coronavirus first reported in Wuhan, China. The government of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, has confirmed hundreds of infections and 17 deaths. NPR reported that Chinese authorities feared the busy Lunar New Year travel season could spread the disease, so travel restrictions were put in place.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention “said that although the virus does not appear to be as virulent as the one that caused a pandemic of SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – 17 years ago, it is nevertheless” highly infectious “,” NPR reported. .
January 23: Regional and Global “High Risk”
By the end of January, Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam had reported less than five cases each of the novel coronavirus. Tedros, the head of the WHO, told reporters the outbreak posed a “high risk” regionally and globally and an emergency in China, as the country rushed to set up quarantine and surveillance facilities. treatment. “But,” he said, “it hasn’t become a global health emergency yet.”
January 25: COVID-19 would be a “tiny blip”
In a story that addressed the question of “how worried people outside of China should be,” William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, predicted that based on the data available at At the time, the novel coronavirus would be “a tiny dab on the horizon” compared to annual flu cases.
January 28: “WHO’s highest priority”
As confirmed cases in China doubled in days, public health officials around the world took action. Countries have tightened restrictions on travel from China. In Hong Kong, where eight cases have been confirmed, authorities closed museums, libraries and sports centers and urged people to work from home to slow person-to-person transmission – a glimpse of what would happen to United States in March. “Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and around the world is WHO’s highest priority,” Tedros said during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
January 29: Masks – “If they wore it, yes they were protected”
Cities in China and other parts of Asia adopted masks in January and reported mask shortages as the number of cases rose. Although the position of US officials in late January was that wearing masks was not necessary for members of the general public, NPR coverage pointed out that even inexpensive disposable surgical masks could offer some protection, although not perfect, against the disease if people wore the masks “all the time when you are in the same room as the infected person”, as one infectious disease researcher put it. “If they wore it, yes, they got protection,” the researcher said, referring to a study that tested the effectiveness of surgical masks.
January 30: A global health emergency “because of what is happening in other countries”
On the day the WHO declared a global health emergency, person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus had been reported in China, Germany, Japan and Vietnam. The virus had spread to at least 20 countries. “The main reason for this statement is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries,” Tedros told reporters. However, it was not a foregone conclusion that a pandemic was looming. In 2020, the three previous global emergencies declared by the WHO involved Zika and two separate Ebola outbreaks. These diseases ultimately did not affect enough people around the world to become pandemics. COVID-19 did. It quickly went from an emergency to a pandemic declared by the WHO on March 11, 2020.
January 30: “The risk to the American public is low”
On the same day as the WHO’s January statement, US authorities announced the first case of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in the United States. “Health officials say there is no cause for alarm,” NPR reported. It was the sixth known case in the United States at the time, compared to nearly 9,700 confirmed cases in China.
Overall, “the immediate risk to the American public is low,” Robert Redfield, then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a press briefing.
In January 2020, NPR also reported that “scientists are trying to determine if the disease can spread before people cough or show other symptoms.” A few months later, in April 2020, scientists learned that the coronavirus could indeed spread silently from people with no symptoms.
January 31: “Probably mutated from a common coronavirus in animals and transmitted to humans”
Reports that the first people with coronavirus all had links to a sprawling complex of stalls that sold wild animals, meat and live fish have drawn attention to wet markets. “Researchers believe the new virus likely mutated from a common coronavirus in animals and spread to humans in the Wuhan bazaar,” NPR reported. The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic then became controversial, with some experts including WHO chief Tedros saying the possibility the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan was dismissed too soon. But the lab leak theory didn’t get widespread support. In fact, this week alone, 150 virologists signed a comment stating that all the evidence so far suggests the pandemic started naturally.
Several dates in January: “Coronavirus of Wuhan”
The pandemic has had social ramifications in addition to scientific ramifications. In 2015, the WHO released guidelines for creating non-stigmatizing names for new diseases. Some of NPR’s January 2020 headlines refer to “Wuhan coronavirus” – problematic as the shorthand was strictly based on the origin of the virus. The official name of the disease COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease from 2019) debuted on February 11, 2020.
The pandemic has unleashed a global wave of violence and hatred against people of Asian descent. In a March 2021 NPR article, Yulin Hswen, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, said officials could have done better. “Public health officials know there is a history of racializing diseases and targeting particular groups,” Hswen said. “They could have done more to defend the Asian community.”
Feb. 2: “Testing…should be done at CDC Atlanta”
COVID-19 has been spreading silently largely because countries’ ability to detect new cases was limited in January 2020. “As things stand, testing for coronavirus [in the U.S.] should be performed at the Atlanta CDC,” NPR reported on Feb. 2, 2020. “A diagnostic test that could be performed in local doctors’ offices or even at home would make a big difference in managing the outbreak.” Today, people in the United States, and around the world, are debating whether to take rapid home tests once, twice, or more — and worry about false negatives.
Carmen Drahl (@carmendrahl) is a freelance science writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.