As the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread around the world, the World Health Organization’s decision to hold off on declaring the outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern” is baffling.
The virus, which is similar to the fatal severe respiratory syndrome (SARS), first emerged in Wuhan, China, which has a population greater than New York City. More than 1,900 people have already been infected, and more than 55 people have died.
While Chinese officials have a responsibility to limit the spread of the outbreak, global health officials in Geneva need to take quick action. By declaring a global emergency, WHO would set in motion coordination efforts among various countries and encourage UN member states to institute strict surveillance measures. While some initial panic could result, WHO’s leadership would jolt passive governments into action.
In making its decision not to declare a global public health emergency, WHO officials cited a limited number of cases abroad, and strong, preventative containment measures in China. “While this outbreak is an emergency in China, it has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told me.
However, the number of overseas cases are growing rapidly. There are more than 35 cases in more than a dozen countries and territories outside mainland China, including two in the United States.
By WHO’s own definition, an international public health emergency is “an extraordinary event which is determined … to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response.” Given what we’ve seen of the Wuhan coronavirus so far, the threshold for the declaration has surely been met.
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