• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

NZ health officials respond to WHO's emergency coronavirus declaration

The novel coronavirus, 2019 nCov, has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organisation.

Representatives of the Ministry of Health of the People’s Republic of China reported to WHO that there are now 7,711 confirmed and 12,167 suspected cases throughout the country. Of the confirmed cases, 1,370 are severe and 170 people have died. 124 people have recovered and been discharged from hospital.

WHO's Emergency Committee believes it is still possible to interrupt the virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and discourage social gatherings depending on risk. It is not recommending limiting trade and movement.

At a press conference today, New Zealand's Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said they would continually review their pandemic measures. 

"We are concerned but not alarmed."

"We have acted very much in line with WHO's advice and will continue to do so in line with our national pandemic plan."

He confirmed that testing for coronavirus is now available in New Zealand. 

Five people in New Zealand were tested yesterday but they did not have the virus. Bloomfield said there would likely be a handful of tests a day.

Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said WHO has confidence in China and that it is actually setting a new standard for outbreak response. 

"We would have seen many more cases outside China by now – and probably deaths – if it were not for the government’s efforts, and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world."

There are now 98 cases in 18 countries outside China, including eight cases of human-to-human transmission in four countries: Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the United States of America. A live tracking tool created by Johns Hopkins University shows the timeline and scale of the outbreak.

Total confirmed cases. Graph/JHU

Last week, WHO held off on declaring an emergency until person-to-person transmission was confirmed in other countries, which is their criteria for a global emergency.

Ghebreyesus said the main reason for the emergency declaration is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries.

"We don’t know what sort of damage this 2019nCoV virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility."

Pacific Island countries, like Samoa, have put in strict quarantine measures. Samoa has a history of being devastated by past pandemics, like the recent measles outbreak.

The Government and Air New Zealand are evacuating New Zealanders stuck in Wuhan by chartering a plane for 300 passengers. The city of 11 million people has been in lockdown since the outbreak of the virus, which originated from a live animal market.

The Emergency Committee acknowledged that there are still many unknowns and a "technical mission" will be set up to investigate the animal source of the outbreak, the clinical spectrum of the disease and its severity, the extent of human-to-human transmission and efforts to control the outbreak.

NZ health officials are currently developing procedures for pre-departure health screening of passengers, infection control inflight, and isolation of all passengers arriving in New Zealand for up to two weeks.


People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus but older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus. 

Symptoms of 2019-nCoV are similar to a range of other illnesses such as influenza and do not necessarily mean that you have 2019-nCoV. Symptoms include fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. Difficulty breathing can be a sign of pneumonia and requires immediate medical attention.