The World Health Organization (WHO) said today that it’s too early to declare an international public health emergency in response to the rapid spread of a new coronavirus from China. The virus is in the same viral family as SARS, which circulated throughout the world in 2002 and 2003. There are currently over 500 confirmed cases in five countries of the virus, which causes fever and respiratory distress, and 17 confirmed deaths, according to data cited during the press conference. Other sources have reported over 650 confirmed cases and 18 deaths.
“Make no mistake, this is, though, an emergency in China. But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” said Tedros Adhanom, director general of the WHO, in a press conference today. “The fact that I’m not declaring a [global health emergency] today should not be taken as a sign that the WHO does not think the situation is serious or is not taking it seriously.” The virus poses a high risk within China and globally, he said.
The WHO defines a global emergency, formally known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.” The process for declaring this kind of emergency was put in place after the SARS outbreak. Five have been declared in the past decade: swine flu (2009), Ebola outbreaks in West Africa (2014) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2019), Zika (2016), and polio (2014).
The International Health Regulations Committee, which examines evidence around outbreaks and recommends if they should be declared PHEICs, first met yesterday. The committee was split fifty-fifty and could not reach a decision. Committee members were split down the same lines today. Those who do not believe that the outbreak has reached the level of a PHEIC cited the limited number of cases abroad and the aggressive efforts of Chinese officials to contain the virus, said committee chair Didier Houssin during the press conference.
“Declaring PHEIC is an important step in the history of an epidemic,” Houssin said. “The perception of this declaration by the international community and in the most affected country for the people who are presently struggling with the virus certainly has to be considered.”
The WHO said that every country should be prepared to deal with cases of the virus. It is not recommending any additional restrictions on travel or trade.