The World Health Organisation on Thursday declared an international public health emergency over the deadly new coronavirus that has hit China hard. The announcement comes as nearly a hundred cases have been spotted in countries outside of China, including the first case of human-to-human transmission in the U.S., also reported on Thursday.
The WHO’s decision on the outbreak of virus, known as 2019-nCoV, was made following a lengthy discussion by experts assembled by the agency. Last week, the same committee deliberated for two days about whether to call for a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), as it’s officially known, but declined to do so. While China has reported a large surge of cases since then—over 7,700 cases and 170 deaths as of early January 30—the move to now call for an international emergency was motivated by the worsening situation outside of China, according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
As of Thursday, there have been 98 cases reported outside of mainland China in at least 18 countries, but no deaths outside of China.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” Tedros said at the press conference announcing the PHEIC today. “We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.”
The declaration allows the WHO and its partners more standing to recommend emergency measures to countries, according to the WHO, which can include international travel restrictions.
While most cases have involved people travelling from the Wuhan region of China (hence the unofficial use of Wuhan virus to refer to 2019-nCov), at least eight cases have been spread through close contact. On Thursday, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first local case of the virus, involving a Chicago resident who contracted it from his wife who had recently returned from Wuhan.