By Annisa Essack
The World Health Organisation today declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus a global health emergency, an acknowledgment of the risk the virus poses to countries beyond its origin in China and of the need for a more co-ordinated international response to the outbreak.
WHO leaders have urged counties not to restrict travel or trade to China, even as some have shut their borders. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, following a meeting of the agency’s emergency committee, said, “This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.
Tedros and WHO officials have gone out of the way to praise the Chinese response to the outbreak. He said that the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, is meant to help support less developed countries and to try to prevent the virus from spreading in those places that are less equipped to detect the disease and handle infections.
The committee, last week, recommended that a PHEIC not be declared yet because of the limited spread of the virus outside of China. However, he reconvened the committee this week because other countries, including Japan, Germany, Vietnam, and, the United States, have reported limited human-to-human transmission of the virus — a warning sign that the virus could start circulating more broadly outside China.
As of this morning, there have been more than 7,800 confirmed coronavirus infections around the world, all but 98 were in China. There have been 170 deaths, all in China.
The declaration comes as individual countries have started to close borders and restrict trade to China, and as airlines have halted some flights. Experts say such measures are not effective in stopping the spread of a virus and may discourage countries experiencing outbreaks from being forthright.
The PHEIC could rally some global co-ordination for a more unified response. Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergency chief, told media yesterday that 194 countries implementing unilateral trade and travel restrictions was an economic, political, and social “recipe for disaster.”
Tedros said more important than the PHEIC declaration were the recommendations from the emergency committee, which included speeding the development of vaccines and therapeutics, combating misinformation, and supporting countries with weaker health systems.
There have been no confirmed cases of the virus anywhere in Africa but public health experts are concerned that countries on the continent may not be as equipped to detect cases and control the potential transmission of the virus due to poor or under-resourced health infrastructure. With increased trade relationships between Africa and China in recent years, travel back and forth has increased; experts fear that the virus could easily move to the continent from China.
The WHO also says it plans on provisionally calling the disease caused by the virus “2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease” until officials settle on a name.
Ahead of WHO’s decision today, there were two active PHEICs: the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the continued transmission of polio.