Global health officials will decide Thursday whether to declare a public health emergency over the coronavirus as cases multiply in Wuhan, China.
“The continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China are of course both deeply concerning,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization director-general, said Wednesday of his decision to hold a meeting. “Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
WHO officials determined Jan. 23 that it was too early to call for a public health emergency. But now, the latest tally shows 5,974 people in China have been infected, and 132 have died. Outside of China, there are 68 cases of coronavirus in 15 different countries. None of those people have died, and most were infected after they visited Wuhan. Five of the confirmed cases are in the United States.
Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said at the press conference Wednesday that the “rapid acceleration” of cases was concerning and was one of the reasons that global officials were meeting about the virus again.
The designation “public health emergency of international concern,” or PHEIC, would help bring in additional funding and aid efforts from other countries and improve reporting of cases elsewhere. It would also give Tedros temporary power to recommend countries not implement any travel or trade bans. There’s already a PHEIC declaration underway in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is fighting an Ebola outbreak.
Trump administration officials said Tuesday that they were open to more travel restrictions to protect against the virus, but global health officials tend to push back on bans because they’ve been shown not to work. Countries that know they’ll be isolated won’t report cases of contagion, causing viruses to spread and making the problem worse.
Of the reported coronavirus cases in China, 20% appeared to have severe symptoms, which are similar to pneumonia, and 2% of people who had gotten the virus have died, Ryan said. He warned the percentages meant coronavirus could “still cause a lot of damage if a lot of people get it.”
Ryan said it was understandable that people might be concerned, given that the virus was new, and there wasn’t yet a vaccine.
“I do think we need to also focus on what to do. … We must decide what needs to be done, and we must get on and do it,” he said.
Officials praised the response from the Chinese government, saying officials had been transparent about the virus from the start.
“They are taking extraordinary measures in the face of what is an extraordinary challenge,” said Ryan, who was in China with Tedros this week. More scientists are headed to China to learn from officials there so that other countries know how to respond, he said.
“I believe the world is pulling together to respond to this outbreak,” Ryan said.
Tedros said at Wednesday’s press conference that, if China hadn’t acted the way it did, the outbreak would be far worse than it is now.
“I will praise China again and again,” he said.