MANILA — The World Health Organization on Thursday declared that the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has infected thousands in China, is a public health emergency of international concern. The decision is not a reflection of China’s handling of the epidemic, but of concern for risks posed beyond the country’s borders, according to the head of the U.N. health aid agency.
“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.”— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, WHO
“Let me be clear: This declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China. On the contrary, WHO continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press conference Thursday.
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But he added that “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.”
The WHO chief has repeatedly praised the Chinese government for its response to the epidemic, which has infected over 7,000 people across the country as of Thursday, with over 100 imported cases in 21 other nations. He said the world would have seen more cases — and deaths — outside of China if not for the Chinese government’s efforts. To date, there have been 170 deaths linked to the virus, but none outside China.
“As I have said repeatedly since my return from Beijing, the Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken to contain the outbreak, despite the severe social and economic impact those measures are having on the Chinese people,” Tedros said.
The decision comes just a week after Tedros called global health experts to an emergency committee meeting to advise him on whether to declare the outbreak a PHEIC. After two days of deliberations, the experts were split on the decision to make the declaration, citing limited information on disease severity and transmissibility.
On Jan. 24, Tedros announced his decision not to declare the outbreak a PHEIC. At that time, there were 25 reported deaths, and confirmed cases numbered under 1,000.
The emergency committee provided several recommendations to WHO, China, and countries around the world, including the recommendation for nations not to limit travel and trade.
According to the committee, evidence has shown that, in general, restricting movement of people and goods during a public health emergency “may be ineffective and may divert resources from other interventions.” It may also impact the provision of aid, technical support, and affected countries’ economies.
But the committee did acknowledge that in certain circumstances, such measures “may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with limited response capacities and capabilities, or where there is high intensity of transmission among vulnerable populations.” The committee recommends countries take a risk and cost-benefit analysis to determine if the advantages outweigh the drawbacks.
Over the course of the outbreak, several cities in China have gone on lockdown, shutting down public transportation, airports, and railway stations. Hong Kong has halved the number of flights from mainland China. A number of airlines, too, have suspended or reduced flights to and from China.
Asked what WHO can do to change these decisions, Tedros said that the aid agency expects airlines to follow the emergency committee’s recommendations and that WHO will continue to engage with them. However, he noted, some of the airlines are reducing or canceling flights not due to the outbreak, but because they don’t have enough passengers.
“That could be a reason, and it will be very difficult if that's the case,” he said.