The new coronavirus represents a public health emergency of international concern, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared.
“The main reason for this declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters following a 5-hour meeting of an emergency committee.
The announcement comes as China confirms that 7711 people have transmitted the virus in the country, and 170 people have died. An additional 12,167 suspected cases are being investigated, and 81,917 of people are being kept under medical supervision, according to China’s national health commission.
As the WHO reached its decision, 18 other countries had also confirmed cases of the virus. Most of the people affected seem to have brought the virus from China, but seven cases have resulted from human-to-human transmission outside the country.
Cases have been confirmed in Thailand, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan, Malaysia, France, the US, Germany, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Vietnam, Cambodia, Finland, India, Nepal, Philippines and Sri Lanka. None of the affected individuals in these countries have died, but one case is considered severe.
“Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it,” said Ghebreyesus.
Devi Sridhar at the University of Edinburgh, UK, shares the concern. “I think this decision was long overdue,” she said in a statement. Sridhar hopes that the declaration will accelerate the development of treatments and a vaccine.
The WHO warned that new cases could crop up anywhere in the world, and warned other countries to be vigilant, to prepare to identify and isolate those who are infected and report all information back to the organisation.
The organisation also announced that it is sending a team of researchers to China to identify the animal source of the virus. The first cases of infection were in people who had visited a market in Wuhan, which sold a range of animals. Early research suggests that the virus may have come from bats, possibly via snakes.