The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday it was declaring the China coronavirus outbreak that has killed 213 people in China a global emergency, as cases spread to at least 20 countries.
The United States reported its first case of person-to-person transmission. Experts say cases of person-to-person transmission – which have also been detected outside China in Germany, Vietnam, and Japan – are especially concerning because they suggest a greater potential for the virus to spread further.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told a news conference in Geneva that recent weeks have witnessed an unprecedented outbreak which has been met by an unprecedented response.
Let me be clear, this declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China, he said. Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems.
The declaration of a global emergency triggers recommendations to all countries. It is aimed at preventing or reducing the cross-border spread of disease.
Tedros said the WHO was not recommending limiting trade or travel to China due to the outbreak, however.
The vast majority of the more than 9,700 cases detected globally, according to the latest WHO data, have been in China, where the virus originated in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan.
The WHO held off twice last week from declaring a global emergency. Thursday’s move will trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence it can beat the devil virus.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said the WHO decision was absolutely right.
Declaration of an international emergency will undoubtedly sharpen governments’ focus on protecting citizens, Farrar said. The needed public health measures would be a challenge for all countries, but would be especially difficult for lower-income countries, he added.
The virus has spread quickly since the WHO’s Emergency Committee last met a week ago. But there has been no death reported outside China and neither has the virus emerged in Africa.
The vast majority of cases outside China have a history of travel to Wuhan or history of contact with someone with a travel history to Wuhan, said Teros.