COVID-19 Shows Why the World Needs a Pandemic Agreement

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on how we must prepare now to counter the threat of a future pandemic.

Today marks four years since I said the global outbreak of COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic.

My decision to use the “p-word” was not one I took lightly. Pandemic is a powerful word, evoking fear linked to plagues and pandemics throughout history that have claimed millions of lives and caused severe disruption to societies and economies—as COVID-19 did.

ny of WHO’s critics have pointed to my use of “pandemic” on March 11, 2020 as evidence that WHO was “late” in taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously. By that stage, more than 118,000 cases had been reported in 114 countries, and more than 4,000 deaths. The horse had bolted.

However, the far more significant date was January 30, 2020, six weeks earlier, when I declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)—the highest level of alarm under the International Health Regulations (IHR), an instrument of international law designed to govern the response to global health emergencies. At that time, fewer than 100 cases, and no deaths, had been reported outside China.


A PHEIC has legal and technical meaning; “pandemic” does not—it’s a descriptor, rather than a technical designation.

I declared an end to COVID-19 as a PHEIC on May 5 of last year. Although the crisis has passed, the threat has not. The virus is still circulating, still changing, and still killing.