Infectious Diseases

WHO declares public health emergency for novel coronavirus


Amid the rising spread of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the virus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).

Officials participate in a press conference following the second meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General. January 30, 2020.

Officials participate in a press conference following the second meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General. January 30, 2020.

The declaration was made during a press briefing on Jan. 30 after a week of growing concern and pressure on WHO to designate the virus at a higher emergency level. WHO’s Emergency Committee made the nearly unanimous decision after considering the increasing number of coronavirus cases in China, the rising infections outside of China, and the questionable measures some countries are taking regarding travel, said committee chair Didier Houssin, MD, said during the press conference.

As of Jan. 30, there were 8,236 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in China and 171 deaths, with another 112 cases identified outside of China in 21 other countries.

“Declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern is likely to facilitate [WHO’s] leadership role for public health measures, holding countries to account concerning additional measures they may take regarding travel, trade, quarantine or screening, research efforts, global coordination and anticipation of economic impact [and] support to vulnerable states,” Dr. Houssin said during the press conference. “Declaring a PHEIC should certainly not be seen as manifestation of distrust in the Chinese authorities and people which are doing tremendous efforts on the frontlines of this outbreak, with transparency, and let us hope, with success.”

What happens next?

Once a PHEIC is declared, WHO launches a series of steps, including the release of temporary recommendations for the affected country on health measures to implement and guidance for other countries on preventing and reducing the international spread of the disease, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an interview.

“The purpose of declaring a PHEIC is to advise the world on what measures need to be taken to enhance global health security by preventing international transmission of an infectious hazard,” he said.

Following the Jan. 30 press conference, WHO released temporary guidance for China and for other countries regarding identifying, managing, containing, and preventing the virus. China is advised to continue updating the population about the outbreak, continue enhancing its public health measures for containment and surveillance of cases, and to continue collaboration with WHO and other partners to investigate the epidemiology and evolution of the outbreak and share data on all human cases.

Other countries should be prepared for containment, including the active surveillance, early detection, isolation, case management, and prevention of virus transmission and to share full data with WHO, according to the recommendations.

Under the International Health Regulations (IHR), countries are required to share information and data with WHO. Additionally, WHO leaders advised the global community to support low- and middle-income countries with their response to the coronavirus and to facilitate diagnostics, potential vaccines, and therapeutics in these areas.

The IHR requires that countries implementing health measures that go beyond what WHO recommends must send to WHO the public health rationale and justification within 48 hours of their implementation for WHO review, Mr. Jasarevic noted.

“WHO is obliged to share the information about measures and the justification received with other countries involved,” he said.


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