WHO declares coronavirus as Public Health Emergency of International Concern

Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks next to Michael J. Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO)  (REUTERS)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday declared the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) as the outbreak continues to spread outside Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the virus.

The decision was taken in the second consecutive meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus under the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) regarding the outbreak of coronavirus in China with exportations to other countries.

The declaration serves notice to all United Nations member states that the world’s top health advisory body thinks the situation is “serious”.

With this, the respective countries can take their own decisions if they want to close their borders, cancel flights, screen people arriving at airports or take other protective measures.

“There had been 98 cases in 18 countries outside of the country, but no deaths.Most cases have emerged in people who have travelled from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.However, there have been eight cases of human-to-human infection – in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the United States,” said “Tedros in the press conference.

“The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries. The concern is that it could spread to countries with weaker health systems,”he said .

During the meeting, representatives of the Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China reported on the current situation and the public health measures being taken.

According to WHO, there are now 7711 confirmed and 12167 suspected cases throughout the country. Of the confirmed cases, 1370 are severe and 170 people have died. 124 people have recovered and been discharged from hospital.

The WHO Secretariat also provided an overview of the situation in other countries.

“There are now 82 cases in 18 countries. Of these, only 7 had no history of travel in China. There has been human-to-human transmission in 3 countries outside China. One of these cases is severe and there have been no deaths,” the WHO said.

With the number of cases spreading outside China, the Committee agreed that the outbreak now meets the criteria for a PHEIC and proposed the following advice to be issued as Temporary Recommendations.

“It is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk,” the WHO statement said.

In wake of the swelling number of cases of people affected with the virus, on Thursday, Russia closed its border with China and stopped all trains except for one between Moscow and Beijing.

India on Thursday reported its first case of novel coronavirus. An Indian student of Wuhan University in China tested positive in Kerala, the union health ministry said.

India has already requested China for permission to operate two flights to bring back its nationals from worst-affected central Hubei province.

“We are preparing for air evacuation from Wuhan tomorrow in the evening,” Indian Embassy in Beijing said.

The first flight will carry those Indian nationals who are in and around Wuhan and have conveyed consent for their evacuation, it said.

“There will be another flight subsequently which will carry those who are from other parts of Hubei province,” the mission said.

“We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility. This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours.This is the time for solidarity, not stigma,” Tedros Tweeted.

In the past, the WHO declared five diseases as PHEIC i.e. pandemic influenza (H1N1) in 2009, polio resurgence in 2014, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014, the Zika virus outbreak in 2016 and Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019 .