On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization raised the alarm about an unknown and deadly new virus, declaring it a global health emergency.
“In recent weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
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 these days. 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 has a series on spillover viruses — that’s when pathogens from animals get to humans. Researchers used to think that spillovers were rare events. Now it is clear that they happen all the time. That has changed the way scientists search for new deadly viruses. To learn more, we traveled to Guatemala and Bangladesh, to Borneo and South Africa.
We have a quiz for you to test your knowledge about spillover. But we also want you to question us. Send your questions about spillovers to firstname.lastname@example.org with “spillovers” in the subject line. We’ll answer questions in a follow-up post when the series ends in mid-February.
Science is about making decisions and changing course as more evidence pours in, and the COVID-19 pandemic is a case of science playing out on a global stage. Here are excerpts from NPR’s coverage around the time of that WHO announcement in January 2020. They show that health officials, scientists and NPR reporters worked to make the most accurate information available to people – but they also show how much we had to learn.
Jan 22: “Highly Contagious”
In early 2020, even the experts were still figuring out what to expect from the novel coronavirus first reported in Wuhan, China. The government of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, confirmed hundreds of infections and 17 deaths. NPR reported that Chinese authorities were concerned that the busy Lunar New Year travel season would spread the disease, so travel restrictions were put in place.
China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention “said that while the virus does not appear to be as virulent as the virus that caused a SARS – severe acute respiratory syndrome – pandemic 17 years ago, it is nevertheless ‘highly contagious,'” NPR reported. . .
Jan. 23: “High Risk” regionally and globally
By the end of January, Australia, France, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the US and Vietnam had each reported fewer than five cases of the novel coronavirus. WHO chief Tedros told reporters the outbreak represented a “high risk” regionally and globally and an emergency in China as the country rushed to set up quarantine and treatment facilities. “But,” he said, “it has not yet become a global health emergency.”
Jan. 25: COVID-19 would be a “little blip.”
In a story about “how concerned” 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 the time, the novel coronavirus would be “a little blip on the horizon” compared to annual flu cases.
Jan 28: “WHO’s highest priority”
As confirmed cases in China doubled within days, public health officials around the world sprang into action. Countries have tightened restrictions on travel from China. In Hong Kong, where eight cases were confirmed, authorities closed museums, libraries and sports centers and urged people to work from home to slow person-to-person transmission – a preview of what could happen in the US in March would happen. “Stopping the spread of this virus, both in China and globally, is the top priority of WHO,” Tedros said during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Jan 29: Masks – “If they did wear it, yes, they got protection”
Cities in China and other parts of Asia adopted masks in January, reporting mask shortages as cases rose. While the position of U.S. officials in late January was that mask-wearing was not necessary for members of the general public, NPR reporting pointed out that even cheap, disposable surgical masks could provide some, but not perfect, protection against disease if people wear 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 did wear it, yes, they got protection,” said the researcher, referring to a study that tested the effectiveness of surgical masks.
Jan 30: A global health emergency “because of what is happening in other countries”
By the day 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. Still, it was not a foregone conclusion that a pandemic was lurking. In 2020, the three previous global emergencies declared by WHO were for Zika and two separate Ebola outbreaks. Those diseases ultimately didn’t affect enough people around the world to become pandemics. COVID-19 does. It quickly went from an emergency to a pandemic, declared by the WHO on March 11, 2020.
Jan 30: “Risk to the American public is low”
On the same day as the January WHO statement, US authorities announced the first case of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 in the United States. “Health officials say it’s not cause for alarm,” NPR reported. It was the sixth known case in the US 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 at a news conference.
In January 2020, NPR also reported that “scientists are trying to figure out if the disease can be spread before people cough or show other symptoms.” Just a few months later, in April 2020, scientists discovered that the coronavirus could indeed spread silently from people who showed no symptoms.
Jan 31: “Probably mutated from a coronavirus common in animals and jumped to humans”
Reports that the first people to fall ill with the coronavirus all had connections to a sprawling complex of stalls selling wild animals, meat and live fish drew attention to wet markets. “Researchers believe the new virus likely mutated from a coronavirus common in animals and jumped to humans in the Wuhan bazaar,” NPR reported. The origins of the COVID-19 pandemic later became contentious, with some experts, including WHO chief Tedros, saying the possibility of the virus escaping from a laboratory in Wuhan was prematurely dismissed. But the lab leak theory hasn’t received widespread support. In fact, just this week, 150 virologists signed a comment stating that all evidence to date suggests the pandemic started naturally.
Multiple dates in January: “Wuhan coronavirus”
The pandemic had social consequences in addition to scientific ones. In 2015, WHO issued guidelines for creating non-stigmatizing names for new diseases. Some NPR headlines from January 2020 refer to the “Wuhan coronavirus” — problematic because the abbreviation was based strictly on the origin of the virus. The official disease name COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease as of 2019) debuted on February 11, 2020.
The pandemic sparked a global wave of violence and hatred against people of Asian descent. In a March 2021 NPR story, Yulin Hswen, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, said officials could have done better. “Public health people know there’s a history of racializing diseases and targeting certain groups,” Hswen said. “They could have done more to defend the Asian community.”
Feb. 2: “Testing…should be done at the CDC in Atlanta”
COVID-19 spread largely silently as countries’ capacity to detect new cases was limited in January 2020. [in the U.S.] should be done at the CDC in Atlanta,” NPR reported on Feb. 2, 2020. “A diagnostic test that can be performed in local doctor’s offices or even at home would make a big difference in controlling the epidemic.” in the US and around the world, they debate whether to do home rapid tests once, twice, or more – and worry about false negatives.
Carmen Drahl (@carmendrahl) is a freelance science writer and editor based in Washington, DC