Updated Jan 23, 2020 - Health

WHO: The coronavirus outbreak is not yet a global emergency

People wearing surgical masks at an airport.

Photo: Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The deadly coronavirus has not yet sufficiently spread internationally to designate the outbreak as a global health emergency, the World Health Organization announced Thursday.

Why it matters: Some say the lack of a declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) could lessen international focus and funding needed to address a potential threat, but others worry such a declaration could limit the travel and trade important to many people's livelihoods.

"Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. WHO's risk assessment is that the outbreak is a very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally."
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said at a news conference

The latest: China's National Health Commission reported Thursday night that the country has seen 835 confirmed cases and 25 deaths. The CDC also reports one case in the U.S.

  • WHO says based on its regular updates from China, it appears the virus can be transmitted between humans, but it's still uncertain how readily infectious it is, as most of the cases have been in family groups or between a patient and a health worker.
  • Most deaths so far have occurred in people who have underlying health conditions, like hypertension or diabetes.

What they're saying: The WHO should have issued a PHEIC to better mobilize resources, and China's efforts to isolate cities with the highest infections could backfire, according to Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of Georgetown University's O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

  • Recent moves by China to suspend travel from certain cities could lead to citizen panic and distrust for their government officials, Gostin tells Axios.
  • "How do you enforce a lockdown of a city the size of New York or London without a massive violation of human rights and provoking fear?"

Plus, curbing Lunar New Year festivities is also expected to have an economic impact. Already, there are some signs this outbreak has caused financial damage, as the prices of some Wuhan-based stocks dropped and traders are keeping an eye on other markets.

Meanwhile, two U.S. public health officials and a scientist from Penn State University College of Medicine published a viewpoint piece Thursday in the journal JAMA. Per their piece...

  • Experience from the prior two coronavirus outbreaks (SARS and MERS) that "emerged from animal reservoirs to cause global epidemics with alarming morbidity and mortality" is now informing current response activities and helped initiate vaccine development.
  • Diagnostics are being "rapidly adapted" to include this new virus to improve the identification and isolation of infections.
  • Broad-spectrum antivirals that showed some promise against MERS — such as remdesivir, lopinavir and ritonavir combo, and interferon beta — are being assessed for 2019-nCoV.
  • Vaccines are being developed, including one by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases using the faster mRNA vaccine technology.

The bottom line: "The emergence of yet another outbreak of human disease caused by a pathogen from a viral family formerly thought to be relatively benign underscores the perpetual challenge of emerging infectious diseases and the importance of sustained preparedness," they write in JAMA.

Editor's note: This story updates the number of coronavirus cases and deaths confirmed by China's National Health Commission.

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