Is coronavirus a pandemic or an epidemic?

An epidemic isn't as serious as a pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) has yet to declare the global coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, but such a declaration is not key to fighting the virus on an international scale, global health law expert Nicholas Diamond of Avalere Health told FOX Business.

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WHO defines a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease." The virus meets two out of three criteria for a pandemic, Nancy Messonnier, the CDC's director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday.

"This could be bad," a top CDC official said during a media briefing Tuesday.

Less worrisome than a pandemic is an epidemic. An epidemic is defined by the CDC as an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in a population.

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"Whether WHO calls it an epidemic versus a pandemic is not immediately relevant beyond optics," Diamond said. "That won't really matter in the U.S. The [Department of Health and Human Services] has declared a public health emergency related to COVID-19. It doesn't depend on epidemic or pandemic, it's just declared an emergency based on HHS' judgment."

Airport staff check the temperatures of passengers returning from Milan as part of the coronavirus screening procedure at the Debrecen airport, Hungary, Tuesday. (Zsolt Czeglédi/MTI via AP)

The outbreak that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan has now infected more than 80,000 people globally. Mainland China is reporting 2,663 deaths among 77,658 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei.

"It's not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore, but a question of when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness," Messonier said Tuesday.

No matter how the coronavirus outbreak is categorized on a global level, information sharing between countries, often facilitated by WHO, is key, Diamond said.

"At the end of the day, public health goals are things we all share," he said. "It's an important role the WHO plays in a situation like this, partnering with countries that have been affected, partnering with outside funders on the vaccine development process."

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One sector where the use of the pandemic classification could have an impact is business, Diamond said.

"That might matter at the contract level for private entities," he said. "Some insurance contracts have clauses that trigger in the event of a pandemic in the same sense it might trigger for a flood or national emergency."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.