Too early to declare Coronavirus outbreak an int'l emergency: WHO

'Neither severity, source nor extent of virus' transmission completely known yet'

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Friday 24 January 2020

The World Health Organization (WHO) has decided not to consider the coronavirus outbreak in China as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) for the time being on a day when four cities in China locked themselves to prevent the virus’ spread.

The emergency committee on International Health Regulations announced the decision before international media in Geneva, Switzerland, on the intervening night of January 23-24, 2020, after discussing the issue for 14 hours.

“The members of the committee were sharply divided over the decision of such a declaration,” Didier Houssin, the head of the emergency committee said.

“Half of the members felt it should be declared due to an increase in the number of cases and the evolution of epidemology. Others felt it was too early since the number of cases outside China were limited and the efforts by Chinese authorities were in right direction. Declaring PHEIC is an important step in history of epidemics and they felt it was too early,” he added.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was to declare an emergency on the advice of this emergency committee.

Incidentally, while Singapore and Vietnam registered coronavirus positive cases hours before this meet, the virus has already been confirmed in the United States, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Suspected cases are being investigation in the UK. So far, 584 cases have been confirmed, of which 17 have died, the WHO said. 

“WHO’s risk assessment is that the outbreak is a very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” Ghebreyesus said.

He was asked to comment on what the WHO thought of China locking down four of its cities. The director general evaded a specific reply. “The WHO gives rational and science-based advised to countries. It is for the countries to decide on what steps they want to take,” he said.

Earlier in the day, a senior WHO official, in an interview with the Associated Press, had said that such a lockdown to contain the spread of a disease was unheard of, and that he was unsure of its effectiveness

Had China learnt enough from its mistakes of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ghebreyesus was asked. The SARS outbreak killed nearly 800 people in China in 2003 and it too was spread by a coronavirus strain.

The director general dodged this question too and repeated his reply of sovereign countries taking steps according to what they thought best. 

Nevertheless, Ghebreyesus admitted there was no finality on the source of the infections —whether it was a bat, a snake, of some other animal — and also the severity of the disease was not known yet.

The WHO will also not issue any travel restrictions to China, which will see one of the largest human migrations in the world as millions of Chinese prepare to celebrate the Lunar New Year on January 25. However, it will recommend exit screenings and advise all countries to ensure entry screenings, the director general said. The extent of human-to-human transmissions is also not clear, the WHO said.

The UN body ‘thanked’ China for sharing the genome sequence of the virus with the global scientific community. However, when WHO officials were asked a specific query as to whether the Chinese government had shared the epidemiological curve of the disease with the body, its official Mike Ryan replied, “It was shared only yesterday.”

It may be mentioned here that China reported the first case on December 31, 2019 — 23 days ago. The epidemiological curve is an extremely important bit of information as it traces the whole timeline of the onset of illness to its peak and helps in drawing an understanding of the virus.

“Now we have data about the evolution of the disease and it allows us to track backwards,” Ryan added. He, however, did not reply as to when it would be shared with the global community. 

The virus has not yet been named as WHO officials could not find time to do so. “The name, novel cornovirus (which means new cornonavirus) is okay and the scientific community is working well with that name,” a WHO official said. 

The WHO has advised China to remain transparent, enhance public health measures and keep working with the global health community. To the rest of the world, the advice was simple —remain vigilant. 

Ghebreyesus twice reassured the global community that if need arose, another meeting of the emergency committee on coronavirus will be convened any moment, even at a day’s notice.  

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