KEY POINTS

  • Some 8,200 people, mostly in China, have been diagnosed with the virus
  • WHO has declared global health emergency only five times
  • SARS outbreak of 2003 caused global financial losses of about $40 billion

 

The World Health Organization has declared the worsening coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency – meaning the disease poses an international threat and will require a coordinated international response.

Some 8,200 people, mostly in China, have been diagnosed with the virus, which is being called the 2019-nCoV virus – surpassing the number of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, reported in 2003. Cases of the new virus have been reported in at least 19 countries, with the U.S. reporting its first case of human-to-human transmission.

“Over the past few weeks we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak and which has been met by an unprecedented response,” WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday in a press conference. “We must act together now to limit the spread.”

WHO defines a global health emergency as an “extraordinary event” that is “serious, unusual or unexpected.”

The “continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of China are, of course, most deeply disturbing,” Tedros said in another press conference on Wednesday. “Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”

Tedros insisted Thursday that the declaration is not meant to be a criticism of China – in fact, he repeatedly praised the Chinese government for its efforts to limit the outbreak.

“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,” Tedros said. "[This declaration is] not a vote of no confidence on China."

WHO said it welcomed the leadership and political commitment “of the very highest levels of Chinese government authorities, their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak. China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has resulted in the rapid development of diagnostic tools.”

WHO has only used the emergency designation five times since the mid-2000s. The last time WHO declared a global health emergency was in 2019 during the Ebola outbreak in Congo that killed more than 2,000 people. Prior to that the agency declared global emergencies for the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu and the 2014 polio and Ebola outbreaks.

WHO had stopped short of calling the coronavirus a global emergency in two meetings last week – prompting demands from health experts to reconsider its stance.

“It’s long overdue, and it should have happened Monday,” said Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Sridhar noted that one reason WHO has been reluctant to declare global emergencies is due to the economic consequences they sometimes engender.

Indeed, global financial losses from the SARS outbreak of 2003 totaled about $40 billion, while the world’s gross domestic product “suffered a 0.1% hit due to the outbreak.”

“Right now we need some guidance,” Sridhar added. “Everyone has been waiting for the WHO. The world is moving on with or without the WHO.”

Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “This is an international emergency. A [declaration] allows [WHO] to further lean into the role of global leadership for governments and the private sector.”

While WHO’s recommendations and advisories are not enforceable, they put pressure on countries to abide by them, Rebecca Katz, professor and director of the Center for Global Health and Science and Security at Georgetown University told Bloomberg News.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor and faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said the declaration “signals that the world must be on the alert for a major event.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, said the WHO makes this emergency declaration when it believes a public health threat isn’t limited to just one country, in this case China.

“Essentially, what it does is it basically facilitates communication, data-sharing and coordinating more of a global response,” Bogoch said. “It might help other countries better prepare for whatever public health threat there may be — in this case, preparing for this novel coronavirus that may emerge on their doorstep.”