World Health Organization officials on Thursday declared the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
The announcement was made following an hours-long meeting of the WHO’s Emergency Committee. The move was expected after the agency opted against making the declaration last week.
“Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen and witnessed an unprecedented outbreak,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom. “We must all act together now to limit further spread.”
There have been 7,766 confirmed cases of coronavirus in China thus far, with 170 deaths. Officials in the United States on Thursday announced the first person-to-person transmission of the virus in the country, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the U.S. to six.
Although Adhanom described the outbreak of the virus, which is called 2019 n-CoV, outside China as “relatively small” — with 98 cases in 18 countries — he emphasized the need to declare a global public health emergency before it spreads to a country with a “weaker” healthcare system.
“This is by no means a vote of no-confidence” to the response in China, he said. “We would have seen many more cases and probably deaths if not for the actions of the Chinese government.”
He added that China is setting a “new standard” for outbreak response.
The goal of the emergency designation is to mobilize researchers and clinicians to develop effective drug treatments and vaccines.
Officials also noted the need for an “evidence-based” response to the outbreak, and said that a secondary goal behind declaring it an emergency would be to “combat spread of rumors and misinformation” surrounding the virus and the best way for the public to protect themselves.
WHO Emergency Committee Chairman Didier Houssin said the vote to declare an emergency was “almost unanimous,” and that the decision was made because of the number of cases in China, the number of countries with confirmed cases and the fact that “some countries have taken questionable measures” with regard to travelers.
Neither he nor his colleagues would identify specific countries or measures they consider “questionable.” However, Houssin clarified that by declaring an emergency, WHO officials would be able to work with the counterparts in affected countries to review and potentially revisit these policies.
WHO considers not only the health impact of outbreaks, but the political and economic effects, as well.
Officials from the organization said they have had conversations with the governments of member states regarding the imposition of travel and, in some cases, trade restrictions.
Although several airlines — including United, American and Delta in the United States — have cancelled flights to China in response to the outbreak, Hussein said airline executives told him the cancellations were made due to a lack of passengers.
ByBrian P. Dunleavy