COVID-19 Resource Center
COVID-19 Resource Center
Perspective from Lawrence O. Gostin, JD
January 23, 2020
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WHO: Coronavirus outbreak not yet a global public health emergency

Perspective from Lawrence O. Gostin, JD
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An emergency committee convened by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, MSc, met for the second time today to review the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, and recommended against declaring it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or PHEIC, at this time.

Tedros convened the emergency committee for the first time on Wednesday, amid a dramatic increase in the case count in China, reports of cases in Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the United States, and additional reports that human-to-human transmission has occurred. The committee determined there was not enough information to make a decision at the time and agreed to reconvene Thursday.

During Thursday’s meeting, the committee was split on whether the outbreak met the criteria for a PHEIC, and Tedros decided against declaring one.

“I’m not declaring a PHEIC today. As it was yesterday, the emergency committee was divided over whether the outbreak of novel coronavirus represents a PHEIC,” Tedros said in Thursday’s meeting. "Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency.”

To date, there have been 575 confirmed cases reported in China, including 17 deaths. WHO officials have reported additional cases in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States, bringing the total case count to 584.

Following reports of the U.S. case, the U.S. CDC and local health officials have begun screening for infected travelers coming from Wuhan on direct and indirect flights at five airports: Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, JFK airport in New York, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The airports in Atlanta and Chicago were added to the list of airports to be screened later, after the initial announcement on Jan. 17.

Other nations have announced their own precautions to help prevent further spread of the virus. Chinese officials said they will temporarily halt public transportation in Wuhan beginning Thursday morning and will cancel all flights and trains leaving from the city to reduce the risk for spread. According to more recent reports from the China Daily newspaper, Wuhan officials have also temporarily closed local and long-distance buses, subways and ferries, starting Thursday.

Additionally, the British government has also announced special measures for flights arriving from Wuhan to help prevent the outbreak spreading. Flights from Wuhan arriving at London's Heathrow Airport will now land in an isolated part of Terminal 4, where a health team will check travelers for symptoms.

Had a PHEIC been declared, additional precautions would be implemented by WHO to prevent further international transmission. According to Tedros, WHO is not recommending any broad travel or trade restrictions, though they do recommend that all countries have measures in place to detect cases.

“Again, I’m not declaring a PHEIC today, but that should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Tedros said. “WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day. I will not hesitate to reconvene the committee at a moment’s notice.” – by Caitlyn Stulpin

Disclosures: Tedros reports no relevant financial disclosures.