KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 24 — The World Health Organization (WHO) has declined to classify a new respiratory virus outbreak, which spread from China to multiple countries, as a global health emergency.
The United Nations health agency said its Emergency Committee meeting yesterday found the proportion of deaths in currently reported cases at 4 per cent (17 of 557), besides also finding evidence of human-to-human transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus, known provisionally as 2019-nCoV, related to SARS.
The WHO Emergency Committee noted that a quarter of confirmed cases are reported to be severe, the source of the virus is still unknown, though it’s likely to originate from animals, and the extent of human-to-human transmission is still unclear. The coronavirus has also spread in one health care facility.
“Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement yesterday.
The WHO also reported fourth-generation cases in Wuhan and second-generation cases outside Wuhan. Four generations of spread of the coronavirus means that a person who contracted the virus from a non-human source, probably an animal, has infected a person, who infected someone else, who then infected another person. This, reported STATNews, has alarmed experts.
The WHO estimated the reproductive rate of 2019-nCoV at between 1.4 to 2.5, which refers to the number of people each infected person infects. According to STATNews, the reproduction number must be brought to below one to stop an outbreak.
China has placed Wuhan, Huanggang, and Ezhou — cities with 20 million people total — under quarantine, after the new and possibly fatal respiratory virus originating from Wuhan killed 25 people, all in China, and infected over 800 people globally, as of this morning.
Cases of 2019-nCoV, which has links to SARS, have been reported in Singapore, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Macau and Hong Kong, with potential cases being investigated in Mexico, the Philippines, and Australia.
Malaysia has not reported any cases, although four suspected people tested negative for the virus.
The WHO’s risk assessment is that the outbreak is a very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally, Tedros said, adding that the virus can cause severe disease as well as kill, although it causes milder symptoms for most people.
“We know that among those infected, one quarter of patients have experienced severe disease. We know that 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,” he added.
But while there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, he clarified.
Despite this, the WHO still does not know the source of the virus nor understand how easily it spreads, its clinical features or severity, but the public health agency is working “night and day” with its partners in China and other affected countries.
Tedros also clarified that the call not to declare an emergency over the crisis should not be interpreted to mean that the WHO does not find the situation serious or that it is not taking the issue seriously.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “WHO is following this outbreak every minute of every day, at country, regional and global level. We are working to prevent human-to-human transmission.”
The declaration of a “public health emergency of international concern” is reserved for unusual and serious public health events that have the potential to spread diseases globally, such as the H1N1 outbreak of 2009.
China, Tedros said, has taken measures it believes appropriate to contain the spread of coronavirus in Wuhan and other cities, and the WHO hopes that they will be both effective and short in their duration.
For the moment, the WHO does not recommend any broader restrictions on travel or trade. It does, however, 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,” he added, and said simple things such as washing your hands and covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze can protect people.
The WHO believes that the Wuhan coronavirus could be caused by a newly emerging member of the family of viruses that caused the deadly SARS outbreak that infected over 8,000 people and killed almost 800 in 2002/03 worldwide.