Coronavirus outbreak declared a global public health emergency by WHO
Following more than a week of meetings the World Health Organization’s Director General, upon advice from its Emergency Committee, has declared the ongoing coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This is the sixth time a PHEIC has been declared since the designation was developed 15 years ago.
“I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of 2019nCoV, not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” announced Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.
The announcement comes after more than a week of reportedly divergent opinions in the Emergency Committee convened to evaluate the PHEIC declaration. Following two meetings last week the committee declined to announce a global emergency, suggesting the outbreak at that point was still primarily confined to China.
Seven days later and the decision is now unanimous, although Director General Tedros has made clear this announcement is not directed at criticizing China’s response to the viral outbreak.
“Let me be clear: this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” Tedros reiterated at the press conference announcing the PHEIC. “On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak. As you know, I was in China just a few days ago, where I met with President Xi Jinping. I left in absolutely no doubt about China’s commitment to transparency, and to protecting the world’s people.”
A Public Health Emergency of International Concern is a relatively new WHO declaration, developed following the 2002/03 SARS outbreak. The declaration is intended to function as a global call to action, recognizing an acute and serious public health risk.
The official definition of a PHEIC by the WHO is, “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 declaration has been made on five occasions before now, twice for Ebola outbreaks, and once for Swine flu, Polio, and Zika.
In many ways a PHEIC is largely a symbolic gesture. Its invocation is a fundamental acknowledgement from the WHO that the coronavirus poses a serious risk to global health. It allows the WHO to devote more resources to tackling the global spread of the virus and it also allows the organization to make official recommendations to other countries in regards to travel and quarantine.
As part of Director General Tedros’ announcement he outlined a number of key areas the WHO will be focusing on in the immediate future. As well as supporting vaccine development and helping share scientific knowledge, the organization is also planning on combating the spread of misinformation and rumors regarding the virus.
One of the more direct points Tedros made in the announcement was suggesting there is no current need for countries to be restricting international trade or travel. While some regions, including Hong Kong, Malaysia and the Phillippines have already instituted travel restrictions to, or from, parts of China, other countries are at this stage just recommending citizens reconsider travel to the country.
“… there is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade," says Tedros. "WHO doesn’t recommend limiting trade and movement. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent. WHO stands ready to provide advice to any country that is considering which measures to take.”
As of right now over 8000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in around 20 countries, with the vast majority still concentrated in China. No cases have been reported so far in Africa or South America, but the WHO’s big concern is the virus spreading to countries with weaker healthcare systems.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” says Tedros. “We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.”