WHO says China’s coronavirus outbreak isn’t a global emergency yet

The Chinese government has locked down several large cities to stop the virus from spreading further

Health screening in Guangzhou

Wearing masks to protect against a novel coronavirus, Chinese citizens go through a health screening in Guangzhou, a city nearly 1,000 kilometers from where the outbreak first emerged in Wuhan.

Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China has not yet risen to the level of a global public health emergency, the World Health Organization said January 23 — even as the death toll and number of people sickened rose steeply from just days ago.

Since the virus emerged in December in the central Chinese city of Wuhan (SN: 1/10/20), it has killed at least 17 people out of 557 confirmed cases in China and at least six other countries, WHO said. That’s already double the number of cases reported by Chinese officials just two days earlier, though the jump may be a result of more robust monitoring. Still, China has responded by putting several cities under lockdown in hopes of containing the virus.

“Make no mistake, this is an emergency in China,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news conference. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

So far, there is no evidence for human-to-human transmission outside of China, though “that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen,” Ghebreyesus said. About a quarter of patients develop severe pneumonia-like symptoms, though most of the 17 deaths occurred in patients with preexisting health conditions, he said.

Declaring a “public health emergency of international concern,” or PHEIC for short, would give the WHO director-general more leeway in recommending responses to the threat, including suggesting travel or trade restrictions. Those recommendations aren’t legally binding, but the declaration can encourage greater cooperation among governments and public health officials.

The global health watchdog introduced the PHEIC designation after the 2002/2003 SARS outbreak that killed 774. Since then, only five emergencies have been declared: the 2009 influenza pandemic, the 2013–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, a 2014 outbreak of polio, a 2016 outbreak of Zika (SN: 2/1/16) and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo (SN: 7/17/19).

Exercising caution before declaring an emergency makes sense, says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. Researchers are still trying to work out how infectious, and how dangerous, the virus really is (SN: 1/21/20).

“I’m glad they’re taking their time,” Nuzzo says. “A decision to declare an emergency will signal a level of concern that we don’t have the data to support.”

China, meanwhile, has taken drastic measures to halt the spread of the virus, putting the 11 million residents of the port city of Wuhan under lockdown on January 22. Hours later, the lockdown was extended to several other Chinese cities, just as millions of people had been expected to travel for Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations beginning January 24.

Experts cautioned that such a lockdown could cause panic, and may not even be very effective for stopping the virus from spreading. “China is a sovereign nation with the autonomy to take steps it believes are in its interest and that of its people,” Ghebreyesus said when asked about the Wuhan lockdown. “We hope they are effective and short in duration.”

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.

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