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WHO postpones decision on declaring China coronavirus as global health emergency

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday, January 22, 2020 postponed taking a decision on whether the mysterious coronavirus that killed at least 17 people and sickened hundreds of others in China a global health emergency.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus  WHO postpones decision on declaring China coronavirus as global health emergency Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Photo credit: AFP / FABRICE COFFRINI / Getty Images

WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said physicians need more information and asked the committee which he is leading, which held an emergency meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday, to reconvene on Thursday.

Tedros told roughly 150 reporters on a conference call that was delayed for almost two hours while the committee met that “today, there was an excellent discussion during the committee meeting, but it was also clear that to proceed, we need more information.”

Tedros said the emergency committee on Wednesday was split on whether to designate the illness a global health emergency, noting that “WHO has researchers in China collecting data.

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“The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.”

Chinese authorities said many of the patients with the new illness had come into contact with seafoods and meat markets, suggesting the virus is spreading from animals to people.

WHO physicians said they found evidence of human-to-human transmission within close contacts, citing family members, and within a health-care environment and that the virus was stable and not showing any kind of unusual activity.

WHO defines a global health emergency, also known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as an “extraordinary event” that is “serious, unusual or unexpected.”

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The virus that emerged from Wuhan, China, had spread throughout Asia, infecting more than 540 people in China, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and the Republic of Korea, according to WHO and Chinese state media.

The U.S. had also confirmed its first case on Tuesday, a Washington state man who was travelling in China, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Gostin, a professor and faculty Director of the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said “WHO does not enact emergencies easily. The international health agency only applied the emergency designation five times since the rules were implemented in mid-2000.

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“The last time WHO declared a global health emergency was in 2019 for the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo that killed more than 2,000 people.

“The agency also declared global emergencies for the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu and the 2014 polio and Ebola outbreaks.” 

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