WHO declares coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency

The virus that began in China has now been reported in 18 other countries and caused 170 deaths

people buying face masks in Manila

People line up to buy protective face masks at a store in Manila, Philippines, as officials confirm the country’s first case of the novel coronavirus that has prompted the WHO to declare a public health emergency.

Aaron Favila/AP Photo

The outbreak of a novel coronavirus that began in China is now a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said January 30, as the death toll rose to 170.

Eight cases of human-to-human transmission have been reported in four countries outside of China, including the United States. Another 14 countries have also reported cases within their borders, WHO officials said in a telephone news conference.

Declaring a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC for short, gives the WHO more clout in recommending how countries should respond to the virus threat. China, where most of the nearly 8,000 cases have been reported, has locked down cities that are home to at least 50 million people and is setting up special health facilities to treat the infected in Wuhan, where the outbreak began in December (SN:1/28/20).

“We don’t know what kind of damage this virus could do if the virus spread throughout a country with a weaker health system” than China’s, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “For all these reasons, I’m declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of novel coronavirus.”

U.S. health officials on January 30 reported the first instance of person-to-person transmission in the country, bringing the total number of cases to six. An Illinois woman diagnosed with the virus after returning from Wuhan has spread the virus to her husband, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both patients are in their 60s.

“This person-to-person spread was between two very close contacts,” said Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in a news briefing. “The risk to the general public in Illinois remains low.”

The WHO’s emergency declaration marks only the 6th time the designation has been used (SN: 1/23/20). Previously, the WHO had held off on declaring coronavirus a public health emergency, citing a lack of human-to-human transmission outside of China.  

While WHO recommendations under an emergency aren’t legally binding, experts say the declaration can encourage greater cooperation among governments and public health officials. For example, the WHO can now officially question drastic actions taken by individual countries that the WHO deems ill-advised, such as closing borders or refusing visas. The WHO still does not recommend broad actions that interfere with international travel and trade.

A few countries have already taken extreme actions to prevent the virus from gaining a foothold within their borders. North Korea has prohibited all Chinese travelers from entry, and Kyrgyzstan has closed its border with China. Dozens of airlines have announced plans to limit or stop flights to and from mainland China. The CDC advises U.S. citizens to avoid nonessential travel to China.

The WHO encouraged its member countries to support nations with weaker healthcare systems, and urged accelerated efforts to develop vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tools. Ghebreyesus also called on countries to work together to combat the spread of rumors and misinformation, and to share data about the outbreak with each other and with the WHO.

“The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together,” Ghebreyesus said. “This is the time for facts, not fear, the time for science, not rumors, time for solidarity, not stigma.”

Aimee Cunningham contributed to this story.

Jonathan Lambert is a former staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine