A staff member checks passengers' body temperature at Hankou Railway Station as part of measures takento prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan, China on January 22, 2020.
A staff member checks passengers' body temperature at Hankou Railway Station as part of measures takento prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan, China on January 22, 2020. |Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu/IANS

WHO says coronavirus outbreak in China not yet global health emergency

NetIndian News Network

Geneva, January 24, 2020

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that it was still too early to declare the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in China as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), given its restrictive and binary nature.

In a statement here on Thursday at the end of a two-day meeting, the Emergency Committee (EC) of WHO said that it was expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country.

"Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoV infection, and to share full data with WHO," the EC said.

The Committee said it stood ready to be reconvened in approximately ten days’ time, or earlier should the Director-General deem it necessary.

The Committee urged to support ongoing efforts through a WHO international multidisciplinary mission, including national experts. The mission would review and support efforts to investigate the animal source of the outbreak, the extent of human-to-human transmission, the screening efforts in other provinces of China, the enhancement of surveillance for severe acute respiratory infections in these regions, and to reinforce containment and mitigation measures. A mission would provide information to the international community to aid in understanding of the situation and its potential public health impact.

It said WHO should continue to provide all necessary technical and operational support to respond to this outbreak, including with its extensive networks of partners and collaborating institutions, to implement a comprehensive risk communication strategy, and to allow for the advancement of research and scientific developments in relation to this novel coronavirus.

The EC suggested that, in the face of an evolving epidemiological situation and the restrictive binary nature of declaring a PHEIC or not, WHO should consider a more nuanced system, which would allow an intermediate level of alert. Such a system would better reflect the severity of an outbreak, its impact, and the required measures, and would facilitate improved international coordination, including research efforts for developing medical counter measures, the statement said.

The statement said China should provide more information on cross-government risk management measuress, including crisis management systems at national, provincial, and city levels, and other domestic measures.

It urged China to enhance rational public health measures for containment and mitigation of the current outbreak. It also called for enhanced surveillance and active case finding across China, particularly during the Chinese New Year celebration.

The committee said China should collaborate with WHO and partners to conduct investigations to understand the epidemiology and the evolution of this outbreak, including specific investigations to understand the source of the novel coronavirus, notably the animal reservoir, and animals involved in the zoonotic transmission, as well as the understanding of its full potential for human-to-human transmission, and where transmission is taking place, the clinical features associated with infection, and the required treatment to reduce morbidity and mortality.

It said China should continue to share full data on all cases with WHO, including genome sequences, and details of any health care worker infections or clusters.

It urged China to conduct exit screening at international airports and ports in the affected provinces, with the aim of early detection of symptomatic travelers for further evaluation and treatment, while minimizing interference with international traffic. It encouraged screening at domestic airports, railway stations, and long-distance bus stations as necessary.

The committee stressed that other countries are required to share information with WHO according to the IHR.

"Countries should place particular emphasis on reducing human infection, prevention of secondary transmission and international spread and contributing to the international response though multi-sectoral communication and collaboration and active participation in increasing knowledge on the virus and the disease, as well as advancing research. Countries should also follow travel advice from WHO," it said.

"As this is a new coronavirus, and it has been previously shown that similar coronaviruses required substantial efforts for regular information sharing and research, the global community should continue to demonstrate solidarity and cooperation, in compliance with Article 44 of the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005), in supporting each other on the identification of the source of this new virus, its full potential for human-to-human transmission, preparedness for potential importation of cases, and research for developing necessary treatment," the statement said.

The meeting of the Emergency Committee was convened by the WHO Director-General in the wake of the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019 in China, with exportations currently reported in Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore.

The committee’s role is to give advice to the Director-General, who makes the final decision on the determination of a PHEIC. The committee also provides public health advice or suggests formal temporary recommendations as appropriate.

On 22 January, the members of the Emergency Committee expressed divergent views on whether this event constituted a PHEIC or not. At that time, the advice was that the event did not constitute a PHEIC, but the committee members agreed on the urgency of the situation and suggested that the committee should be reconvened in a matter of days to examine the situation further.

After the announcement of new containment measures in Wuhan on 22 January, the Director-General asked the Emergency Committee to reconvene on 23 January to study the information provided by Chinese authorities about the most recent epidemiological evolution and the risk-management measures taken.

Chinese authorities presented new epidemiological information that revealed an increase in the number of cases, of suspected cases, of affected provinces, and the proportion of deaths in currently reported cases of 4% (17 of 557). They reported fourth-generation cases in Wuhan and second-generation cases outside Wuhan, as well as some clusters outside Hubei province. They explained that strong containment measures (closure of public-transportation systems in Wuhan City, as well as other nearby cities). After this presentation, the EC was informed about the evolution in Japan, Korea, and Thailand, and that one new possible case had been identified in Singapore.

The committee noted that human-to-human transmission is occurring and a preliminary R0 estimate of 1.4-2.5 was presented. Amplification has occurred in one health care facility. Of confirmed cases, 25% are reported to be severe. The source is still unknown (most likely an animal reservoir) and the extent of human-to-human transmission is still not clear.