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WHO: Coronavirus not an international emergency


The new coronavirus which originated in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019, is not a global emergency at this stage.

At a World Health Organisation Emergency Committee meeting today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said WHO would not be declaring a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), which would kick off a coordinated global response. 

WHO’s risk assessment is that the outbreak is a very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally. The number of cases in China is small and the disease does not seem to be spreading within other countries.

"Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one," said Dr Ghebreyesus.

Several members consider it too early to declare a PHEIC, and more evidence was needed.

"I wish to reiterate that the fact I am not declaring a PHEIC today should not be taken as a sign that WHO does not think the situation is serious, or that we are not taking it seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth."

He said WHO is following the outbreak "every minute of every day, at country, regional and global level."

"There is still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know the source of this virus, we don’t understand how easily it spreads, and we don’t fully understand its clinical features or severity."

The exact source is still unknown, although WHO believes it is most likely an animal, and the extent of human-to-human transmission is still not clear. 

There have been more than 800 cases reported to WHO, including 25 deaths. 575 of those cases and all of the deaths have been reported in China, with other cases reported in Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the USA and Vietnam.

New Zealand's Ministry of Health is closely monitoring the situation and following guidance from WHO. The risk of an outbreak in New Zealand is currently low. The WHO has only ever declared a global health emergency five times, the first time in 2009, with the H1N1 swine flu pandemic outbreak. 

Read more: How worried should New Zealand be about the new coronavirus?

Dr Ghebreyesus said WHO is aware of media reports of suspected cases in other countries, but those cases are still being investigated.

The 2019-nCoV, a coronavirus, which is a family of viruses that include the common cold, and viruses such as SARS and MERS, can cause severe disease like pneumonia, and can be fatal, although for most people it causes milder symptoms. Of those infected, one quarter of patients have experienced severe symptoms.

Most of those who have died had underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease that weakened their immune systems.

"We know that there is human-to-human transmission in China, but for now it appears limited to family groups and health workers caring for infected patients," said Dr Ghebreyesus.

WHO is working to prevent human-to-human transmission and has provided guidance to all countries for the rapid identification, management and containment of the virus. It is not recommending any broader restrictions on travel or trade. There are no travel restrictions at the New Zealand border.

"We recommend exit screening at airports as part of a comprehensive set of containment measures. All countries should have in place measures to detect cases of coronavirus, including at health facilities."

The members of the Emergency Committee expressed "divergent views" on whether this event constitutes a PHEIC or not, but members agreed on the urgency of the situation and suggested recovening in a matter of days to examine the situation further.

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