The outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China has
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
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
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
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