WHO declares international emergency over coronavirus
The World Health Organisation has declared an international emergency over the new coronavirus epidemic — a decision many experts regarded as overdue, as the number of confirmed cases rose close to the total of 8,100 people worldwide who fell ill during the Sars outbreak in 2003.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said: “The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries. 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.”
Declaring a public health emergency of international concern is an important symbolic step, signalling how seriously the world takes the epidemic of respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus nCoV. In practical terms, it becomes easier for the WHO to co-ordinate the responses of governments around the world.
Under International Health Regulations, to which all 196 member states are committed, WHO can require specific measures at ports, airports and ground crossings to limit the spread of infection, while preventing “unwarranted travel and trade restrictions so that disruption is kept to a minimum.”
At present, Dr Tedros said, “WHO opposes any restrictions on travel and trade against China.” He praised Chinese efforts to control the coronavirus as “very impressive — beyond words.”
“Let me be clear,” he added, “this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. On the contrary, the WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”
According to the latest WHO figures, which lag a little behind unofficial counts, 7,818 cases of nCoV have been confirmed worldwide, of which 82 were outside China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.
In China 1,370 people are severely ill and 170 have died. There are also 12,167 suspected cases — suggesting that the confirmed toll will continue to rise sharply over the next few days at least.
Dr Tedros urged people to beware rumours. “This is the time for facts, not fear,” he said. “This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”
Public health experts outside the WHO praised the decision, which they said was overdue. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, the London-based medical charity, said: “Declaration of an international emergency will undoubtedly sharpen governments’ focus on protecting citizens. But we must also step up as an international community to make sure no one is left behind — with all interventions, including public health measures, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines available to everyone.
“This will challenge the best-resourced countries but will have disproportionate impact on fragile health systems in low- and middle-income countries,” Dr Farrar added. “A global epidemic of a rapid-spreading novel respiratory virus like this, which has crossed from animals to humans, is something warned of for many years. It is also a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to epidemics of infectious diseases known and unknown.”
Thomas Cueni, director-general of the International Association of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, said the declaration would “serve not only to signal to the need for epidemic preparedness, it will also serve to further galvanise global collaboration with the private and public sector that will be required to develop vaccines and treatments needed.”