The World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting again in Geneva to discuss whether to declare the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a global emergency.
- The WHO must decide if the outbreak is a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC)
- The designation could lead to more funding for the fight against the virus
- But it could also hurt China’s economy and lead to further travel restrictions
The meeting comes as the death toll continues to climb, and as the infection spreads not only in China but other countries around the world.
It will be the third time the WHO’s Emergency Committee has debated the issue, after deciding twice last week not to call the coronavirus a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, or PHEIC.
If the health body were to do so, it would mark just the sixth time a global pandemic has been given that designation.
Here’s what you need to know.
What would it mean?
A PHEIC is defined by the WHO as “an extraordinary event” that “constitutes a public health risk to other states through the international spread of the disease”, and potentially requires “a coordinated international response”.
If the organisation were to declare the outbreak an emergency, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus would be allowed to make recommendations on controlling the global spread of the virus.
This could also include recommendations related to travel, for example, on issues like screenings at land borders and international airports.
The decision could also in theory lead to a boost in funding and resources for containing the coronavirus from the international community.
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told ABC News Breakfast this week he would like to see the WHO declare the virus a global public health emergency, however, he said a lot was already being done.
“It is important to note [the WHO] have stepped up their response as if it were a public health emergency and they are doing the normal things they would do,” he said.
All cases of SARS, human influenza, smallpox and other known diseases are always considered to be a PHEIC — however, because the Wuhan coronavirus is a new or “novel” coronavirus, a decision needs to be made on its significance.
The WHO’s most recent situation report on the coronavirus said the risk level within China remained “very high”, while the risk was “high” on a regional and global level.
Why haven’t they done it yet?
News reports suggest the Emergency Committee has been split 50-50 on the decision — a key part of the criteria appears to be the extent to which the virus is spreading outside China.
Recent cases of person-to-person transmission around the world may lead the committee reconsider whether or not to declare the outbreak an emergency, however, it’s worth noting the majority of new cases have occurred inside China.
The WHO’s criteria
- Is the public health impact of the event serious?
- Is the event unusual or unexpected?
- Is there a significant risk of international spread?
- Is there a significant risk of international travel or trade restrictions?
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
“In the last few days, the progress of the virus especially in some countries, especially human-to-human transmission, worries us,” Dr Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva, specifically referring to the cases in Germany, Vietnam and Japan.
“Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak.”
There are also concerns that China’s economy could be negatively impacted by a PHEIC determination.
Countries may choose to cut travel and trade links with China, even though this would likely go against any future emergency recommendations from the WHO director-general.
When the WHO declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) an emergency last year, the director-general warned countries against using it as “an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions”.
He said this would worsen the impact of the outbreak, and negatively affect the livelihoods of those most affected by it.
But as far as the coronavirus in China is concerned, that ship may have already sailed.
Countries around the world have already moved to limit personal travel to and from China in the wake of the outbreak, including Australia, which is urging citizens to “reconsider [their] need to travel” there while the outbreak is ongoing.
The United States and the UK have given would-be travellers similar warnings.
Hong Kong has cut transport links between mainland China and the territory, halving the number of flights between the two and suspending high-speed train and ferry services.
Some countries have even gone further: North Korea is reportedly not allowing any Chinese tourists to visit, while Papua New Guinea has put in place a blanket ban on all travellers from “Asian ports”.
When has the WHO done it before?
The PHEIC is a relatively new concept, and the label has only been applied to five other emergency events in the past.
According to emerging infections expert Tom Solomon, who is the head of the National Institute for Health Research at the University of Liverpool, the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak led to the creation of the term.
SARS claimed the lives of more than 700 people and infected more than 8,000.
The first declaration was for the 2009 Swine Flu, or H1N1 virus.
There were two declarations in 2014, one related to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the other related to Polio in Pakistan, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Syria.
The Zika virus in Brazil was declared a public health emergency in 2016, while the previously mentioned Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo was declared a global public emergency in July last year.
Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), which is also a coronavirus, was controversially not deemed a PHEIC.