WHO declares coronavirus outbreak as global health emergency

After Vietnam, Germany and Japan; US too confirms human-to-human transmission in their countries

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Friday 31 January 2020
Photo: WHO / Twitter

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the current outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on January 30-31, 2020, on the recommendation of its emergency committee.

Across the world, 213 people have died of 9,776 infected by the virus. Wuhan has been the epicentre and China accounted for most cases.

According to The total number of confirmed cases now stands at 8,236. This has now exceeded the number of people affected by SARS (also a coronavirus) in 2003, which was 8,098. The total number of deaths due to 2019-nCoV have climbed up to 171.

This was the second time the emergency committee met to take a decision on the matter. A week ago, the WHO, after the committee’s meeting, had said it was too early to declare the outbreak a global health emergency

The decision had been taken primarily in the interest of countries that had weaker health systems and may not be able to cope with the outbreak if it happened there, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. 

Such a declaration was not to be construed as a vote of no-confidence against the Chinese government, Ghebreyesus re-emphasised.

“The Chinese government is doing more that what it should do. Its tough measures have led to limiting the virus largely within China. Only 98 cases have been confirmed outside the country and we are grateful to the highest leadership of China for that,” he said. As many as 21 nations have confirmed 2019-nCoV infection.

In a press conference held a day earlier, WHO’s health emergencies programme director Michael Ryan had said declaration of PHEIC should help coordinate measures that different countries were taking individually.

“If 194 nations react as they deem fit, and there is no alignment of measures among them, it will lead to confusion,” he said.

The WHO was in touch with various stakeholders, including the World Bank, to mobilise financial resources for countries that might not be in a position to dedicate funds to fight the outbreak, Ghebreyesus had said in an earlier press conference. The declaration of a global health emergency would accelerate fund mobilisation, he had added.

Another factor which led Ghebreyesus to make such an announcement was the fact that human-to-human transmission of the virus which was earlier limited to China, has now spread to four countries.

While Germany, Japan and Vietnam had declared it a couple of days ago, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made an announcement to that effect on January 30. As many as eight cases outside China have been confirmed now due to human-to-human transmission.

This might toughen the fight against the outbreak because person-to-person spread can lead to local epidemics in these countries, as Gabriel Leung, a public health expert in Hong Kong University had warned in his report submitted to the WHO. Prior to this transmission, all the cases outside China had a travel history to Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.

“The novel coronavirus has spread between two people in the United States, representing the first instance of person-to-person spread with this new virus here,” the CDC said in a statement.

“Previously, all confirmed US cases had been associated with travel to Wuhan. However, this latest 2019-nCoV patient had no history of travel to Wuhan, but shared a household with the patient diagnosed with the infection on January 21, 2020,” the statement added.

MERS and SARS, the other two coronaviruses that have emerged to cause serious illness in people, have been known to cause some person-to-person spread. With both those viruses, person-to-person spread most often occurred between close contacts, such as healthcare workers and those caring for or living with an infected person, the CDC explained.

Travel bans

The WHO D-G and the emergency committee chair said a number of times during the press conference that they did not support travel restrictions. Countries like the US and India have already issued the highest level of advisory to their citizens to avoid travel to China if it is not essential.

The D-G explicitly said WHO opposed any travel restrictions to China as the UN body was fully satisfied with the response of the Chinese government to the outbreak. 

“The Committee does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available.  Countries must inform WHO about any travel measures taken, as required by the International Health Regulations (IHR). Countries are cautioned against actions that promote stigma or discrimination, in line with the principles of Article 3 of the IHR treaty,” the emergency committee of the WHO said. 

In response to a query, Ghebreyesus also said that only some countries had the capacity to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan as it would require arranging special flights, identifying, evacuating and quarantining the people evacuated.

Ryan went on to say all countries who took such measures should be questioned by the WHO for the scientific rationale behind them. The countries doing so, on the other hand, have issued statements saying they were resorting to such an action for the safety of their citizens.

Many airlines have also closed their services for China or parts of it.

Ghebreyesus said he had been told this was not being done due to stigma but because the passenger load to China had gone so down that these carriers considered it untenable to continue the flights. These carriers include British Airways, Lufthansa Group, KLM, Austrian Airlines, Air Canada, United Airlines (US). 

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