Health and Healthcare Systems

Key milestones in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic

A child wearing a protective face mask is seen next to Italian flag during a protest in front of the town hall, as Italy eases some of the lockdown measures put in place during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Milan, Italy May 18, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC2WQG9E3CZZ

Italy was for many weeks the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. Image: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Harry Kretchmer
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  • Key moments include the identification of the disease and its classification by the World Health Organization as a pandemic.
  • Amid the suffering and population lockdowns, there have also been significant milestones in global cooperation.

COVID-19 has killed more than 315,000 people so far, with more than 4.7 million confirmed cases globally, as of 18 May.

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It has pushed businesses and government borrowing to their limits, with the IMF projecting the coronavirus could lead to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

But as some governments now begin to ease restrictions and plan for the future, how did we get here? Here are the pandemic’s key moments.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
A lot has happened since December 2019, when China reported a mystery illness. Image: Avetta


8 December - Wuhan’s first case

The first patient in Wuhan City, China reports symptoms similar to a coronavirus infection. The case was identified based on a retrospective review. The disease is thought to have emerged in the Huanan seafood market - although doubts are later cast on that theory.

31 December - WHO informed

China informs the World Health Organization (WHO) about a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, Hubei Province. The virus is still not understood.


January 1 - emergency footing

The World Health Organization goes on to an emergency footing for dealing with a major disease outbreak. Huanan seafood market is shut down.

January 4 - cluster of cases

The WHO reports on social media that there is a cluster of pneumonia cases – with no deaths – in Wuhan.

January 7 - novel coronavirus identified

The disease is identified by Chinese authorities as a new type of coronavirus, novel coronavirus, or nCoV.


January 11 - first death reported

The first death from the new coronavirus is reported by Chinese state media. They say that a 61-year-old man in Wuhan has died. He had underlying health conditions.

January 13 - first case outside China

A case of the coronavirus is confirmed in Thailand. It is the first recorded case outside of China.

January 14 - WHO warns of risk

The WHO notes there may have been limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus and there is a risk of a possible wider outbreak.

January 20 - virus spreads to US

The United States announces its first confirmed case - a man in his 30s who had returned from a trip to Wuhan. There are also confirmed cases in Japan and South Korea.

Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Daily confirmed new cases of COVID-19 around the world. Image: John Hopkins University & Medicine

January 23 - lockdown begins

Wuhan is locked down by Chinese authorities in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. Roads are severely restricted and rail and air services are suspended. Foreign governments begin to make plans to evacuate their citizens from the city, although this takes some time.

January 30 - Public Health Emergency declared

The WHO reconvenes its organization’s Emergency Committee, two days after the first reports of limited human-to-human transmission outside China. The Director-General declares the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

January 31 - US restricts entry

The Trump administration suspends entry into the United States by any foreign national who has traveled to China in the past 14 days, excluding immediate family members, permanent residents or American citizens.


February 2 - first death outside China

A coronavirus death is reported outside China for the first time - a man in his 40s from the Philippines.

February 5 - cruise ship in quarantine

More than 3,600 passengers are quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. A large number of passengers test positive and the ship attracts global media attention.

Barriers are put up near the cruise ship Diamond Princess, where dozens of passengers were tested positive for coronavirus, at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan, February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Issei Kato - RC21YE923EBP
The plight of stranded tourists on a cruise ship hit by the virus focuses media attention on the disease. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

February 7 - Chinese whistleblower dies

A Chinese doctor who tried to raise the alarm about the new virus is reported to have died from the disease.

February 11 - COVID-19 gets its name

The WHO proposes a new official name for the disease caused by the coronavirus: COVID-19, an acronym for coronavirus disease 2019. The virus that causes it is named: SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).

February 14 - first death in Europe

The first European COVID-19 death is announced - in France.

February 19 - cases in Iran

Iran announces two COVID-19 cases in the country.

February 21 - South Korean surge

The Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea is linked to a surge of infections in the country. The government closes kindergartens, nursing homes and community centres.

February 23 - Italy starts lockdown

Italy sees a major surge in cases of the coronavirus and many towns are locked down. It is the first major outbreak in Europe.

February 28 - first case in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa records its first infection, in Nigeria. The patient is an Italian citizen who had been in Milan.


February 29 - first death in US

The first coronavirus death is recorded in the United States. Travel restrictions are announced.

MARCH 2020

March 11 - WHO calls it a pandemic

The WHO makes the assessment that COVID-19 can be officially described as a pandemic due to the rapid increase in the number of cases outside China. President Donald Trump bans most visitors from continental Europe. Global stock markets fall further.

March 13 - Solidarity Response Fund launched

The WHO launches the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to receive donations from private individuals, corporations and institutions. The World Economic Forum is also working with its members to assist in the crisis.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

March 19 - no new local infections in China

For the first time since the outbreak began, all new cases come from outside China. The country's 3,245 deaths still comprise one-third of the virus' global toll, but the numbers hold and it is a sign the country has turned a corner.

March 24 - key day of milestones

On a key day in the COVID-19 story, the milestone of more than 100,000 patients to successfully recover from the virus is reached, and the lockdown is partially lifted for China's Hubei Province. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi orders a "complete" lockdown for the 1.3 billion population and, in Japan, the Tokyo Olympics are postponed until 2021, ending weeks of speculation over whether they would go ahead in July.

March 26 - US hardest hit

The United States becomes the country hardest hit by the pandemic with more than 80,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,000 deaths.

March 27 - Trump’s stimulus package

The next day, President Trump signs a $2 trillion stimulus package into law to address both the health and economic crisis.

APRIL 2020

April 2 - cases reach 1 million

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world hits 1 million and more than 51,000 are confirmed dead from the disease. In the US, figures show nearly 10 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefit as a result of job losses caused by the disease.

April 6 - UK PM in intensive care

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has been receiving hospital treatment for COVID-19 is moved into intensive care. He went public with his diagnosis 10 days earlier. He is released from hospital on April 12.


April 10 - deaths pass 101,000

A milestone in the global death toll - it passes 101,000.

April 13-15 - Europe eases lockdown

Some countries in Europe begin to scale back their lockdowns. Austria plans to let DIY stores reopen, Italy also plans to reopen some shops and Spain gets ready to allow some construction and factory employees back to work.

April 14 - Trump pulls WHO funding

President Trump suspends WHO funding pending the administration’s investigation into the way the organization has handled the coronavirus pandemic. He accuses the WHO of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”. Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responds that he regrets the decision and the WHO is “focused on stopping this virus and saving lives”.

April 15 - NYC tests for antibodies

The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, announces that the virus-hit city will begin daily antibody testing for 2,000 essential workers, hoping to expand to 100,000 tests a day in an effort to lay foundations to get people back to work. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel lays out plans to slowly ease some restrictions in the country.

April 17 - Drug trial begins

The largest trial yet of drug treatments for COVID-19 begins in the UK. The Recovery Trial will work with 5,000 patients in the National Health Service. Similar, smaller trials are due to start soon elsewhere in Europe.

April 18 - ‘One World’ concert

One World: Together At Home - a star-studded virtual concert curated by Lady Gaga celebrating healthcare workers on the frontline - is broadcast on TV networks and streamed online on Saturday, 18 April. The event raises millions of dollars to support those fighting COVID-19.

April 20 - Countries ease lockdown

New rules relaxing restrictions on farming, banking and public works come into force in India, expected to ease economic impacts of the coronavirus lockdown. Many businesses continue to be restricted. In Europe, Spain and Norway also take limited steps to ease some restrictions.

April 23 - Vaccine trial begins

Europe’s first human trial of a coronavirus vaccine begins in the UK, led by an Oxford University team. More than 6,000 are expected to take part in the study, which follows a successful trial of a vaccine at Oxford’s Jenner Institute last year for a different coronavirus. The team hopes to demonstrate by the end of May that the vaccine works.

April 24 - WHO antibodies warning

The World Health Organization says there is “currently no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection”.

Italy COVID-19 deaths.
Italy is one of the countries where there are a large number of unexplained ‘excess deaths’ that are not officially attributed to COVID-19. Image: London Business School

April 26 - New death toll figures

At this point, COVID-19 has killed more than 200,000 worldwide and has infected more than 2.8 million people, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Around this time publications including the Financial Times and the New York Times report about ‘excess deaths’ - fatalities that are greater than usual for the time of year but are not fully accounted for by COVID-19 deaths. The FT says the global coronavirus death toll could be 60% higher than reported.

April 27 - Immunization worries

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns that COVID-19 is threatening vaccination programmes: “The tragic reality is that children will die as a result.” 14 campaigns against diseases including polio and measles have been suspended, which would have immunized more than 13 million people.

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The disruption to vaccination programmes due to COVID-19 could lead to a spike in preventable deaths Image: WHO

May 1 - Remdesivir approval

The US Food and Drug Administration issues emergency approval for the hepatitis and Ebola treatment, Remdesivir to be used as COVID-19 treatment. The medicine has been shown to help the conditions of seriously ill patients. In another development, The World Health Organization says the coronavirus pandemic remains a global health emergency.

May 4 - Vaccine fundraising drive

More than $8 billion is pledged to help develop a coronavirus vaccine and fund research and diagnosis. More than 30 countries, as well as the UN and philanthropic organizations contribute at the EU-hosted online summit.

May 7 - Tourist industry warning

The number of international tourists could fall by almost 80% in 2020, the UN agency, the World Tourism Organization, forecasts, putting millions of jobs at risk. In the United States, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence test negative for coronavirus, and US unemployment claims reach more than 33 million in seven consecutive weeks. The number of COVID-19 cases in Russia overtakes France and Germany.


May 10 - UK to ease lockdown

British PM Johnson announces a partial easing of the lockdown in England, allowing people to spend more time outdoors within days and outlining plans to send children back to school in June - if the reproduction rate of the virus remains below 1.

May 11 - Russia relaxes restrictions

The COVID-19 lockdown in Russia is to be gradually eased, announces Russia’s President, Vladamir Putin. Numbers of new cases are still rising in the country. On the same day, the World Health Organization cautions that “extreme vigilance” is needed in exiting lockdowns in order to avoid a second wave of infections.

May 12 - Lebanon Lockdown

Following an increase in infections after restrictions are eased, people in Lebanon are told to stay at home for four days as part of a “total” lockdown. China announces plans to test all 11 million residents of Wuhan for the coronavirus after a handful of new cases emerge.

UK economy coronavirus
The UK economy is facing a significant recession. Image: ONS/Bloomberg

May 13 - UK economy hit

The UK economy contracted by 5.8% in March and is braced for a major recession, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak warns. In Germany, plans were announced to relax border controls.

May 15 - Death toll milestone

The official global coronavirus death toll passes 300,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There are now more than 4.4 million confirmed cases worldwide.

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