The World Health Organization announced Thursday that the outbreak of a deadly and fast-spreading strain of coronavirus constitutes a global health emergency.
“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 Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.
However, Tedros was adamant that “the main reason for the declaration is not because of what is happening in China but because of what is happening in other countries. … Let me be clear, this vote is not a declaration of no confidence in China.” He said the WHO is deeply concerned about what will happen if the virus begins spreading in countries with weak health systems, and that the purpose of the declaration is to help those countries.
The declaration of a global health emergency can work to galvanize international funding. According to the WHO’s procedures, the three criteria for such a declaration are that it is an “extraordinary event,” that it “constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and that it “potentially require a coordinated international response.”
The last time the WHO announced an international health emergency was in July 2019 over the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before that, international emergencies were declared in 2016 for the Zika virus and in 2014 for the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
The new coronavirus has sickened more than 7,800 people worldwide and killed at least 170, all of them in China.
The WHO said in a statement that “all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread” of the virus.
“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. WHO doesn’t recommend limiting trade and movement,” Tedros added. But the WHO also said that in certain circumstances, such as when there are many cases of transmission among a vulnerable population, such measures could be “temporarily useful.”