GENEVA, Switzerland, January 31, 2020 (ENS) – The Director-General of the World Health Organization, WHO, has declared that the outbreak of the novel Wuhan coronavirus 2019-nCoV constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, PHEIC.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the declaration Thursday after the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus convened by teleconference.

Representatives of China’s Ministry of Health reported to the Committee on the current situation and the public health measures being taken. There are now 7,711 confirmed and 12,167 suspected cases of the respiratory illness throughout the country.

Medical staff examine a coronavirus patient in a Wuhan hospital, Jan. 30, 2020 (Photo credit unknown)

Of the confirmed cases, 1,370 are severe and 170 people have died. 124 people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital.

The WHO Secretariat provided an overview of the situation in other countries. There are now 83 cases in 18 countries. Of these, only seven had no history of travel in China. There has been human-to-human transmission in three countries outside China. One of these cases is severe but there have been no deaths.

In the United States, the first case of the coronavirus spreading from one person to another has happened in Chicago. The spouse of a woman who caught the virus while tending to a sick relative in China now has the disease. People in 26 states are under observation for the virus.

The new coronavirus was identified in late 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, after people developed pneumonia without a clear cause and for which existing vaccines or treatments were not effective. The virus can spread between people, and its transmission rate appeared to increase in mid-January.

Cities with a combined population over 57 million people, including Wuhan and 15 cities in the surrounding Hubei province, were placed on full or partial lockdown, involving the termination of all urban public transport and outward transport by train, air and long-distance buses.

At its first meeting, the Committee expressed divergent views on whether this event constitutes a PHEIC or not. At that time, the advice was that the event did not constitute a PHEIC, but the Committee members agreed on the urgency of the situation and suggested that the Committee should continue its meeting on the next day, when it reached the same conclusion.

This second meeting takes place in view of significant increases in numbers of cases and additional countries reporting confirmed cases.

The Committee welcomed the leadership and political commitment of the very highest levels of Chinese government, their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak.

China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has resulted in the rapid development of diagnostic tools.

The very strong measures the country has taken include daily contact with WHO and comprehensive multi-sectoral approaches to prevent further spread.

China has also taken public health measures in other cities and provinces; is conducting studies on the severity and transmissibility of the virus, and sharing data and biological material. The country has also agreed to work with other countries who need their support. “The measures China has taken are good not only for that country but also for the rest of the world,” the Committee said.

The Committee also acknowledged that there are still many unknowns, cases have now been reported in five WHO regions in one month, and human-to-human transmission has occurred outside Wuhan and outside China.

The Committee believes that “it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.”

It is important to note that as the situation continues to evolve, so will the strategic goals and measures to prevent and reduce spread of the infection. The Committee agreed that the outbreak now meets the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The Committee emphasized that the declaration of a PHEIC should be seen in the spirit of support and appreciation for China, its people, and the actions China has taken on the frontlines of this outbreak, with transparency, and, it is to be hoped, with success.

In line with the need for global solidarity, the Committee felt that a global coordinated effort is needed to enhance preparedness in other regions of the world that may need additional support for that.

The Committee welcomed a forthcoming WHO multidisciplinary technical mission to China, including national and local experts.

The mission should review and support efforts to investigate the animal source of the outbreak, the clinical spectrum of the disease and its severity, the extent of human-to-human transmission in the community and in health care facilities, and efforts to control the outbreak.

This mission will provide information to the international community to aid in understanding the situation and its impact and enable sharing of experience and successful measures.

The Committee wished to re-emphasize the importance of studying the possible source, to rule out hidden transmission and to inform risk management measures

It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country, the Committee said. Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoVinfection, and to share full data with WHO.

Technical advice is available on the WHO website. Countries are reminded that they are legally required to share information with the World Health Organization.

Of the first 41 people confirmed to have been infected, two-thirds were found to have a link with the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which also sold live animals, including wild animals.

The Committee advised that any detection of 2019-nCoV in an animal – including information about the species, diagnostic tests, and relevant epidemiological information – should be reported to the World Organization for Animal Health as an emerging disease.

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