Story at a glance

  • Officials say it’s still too early to declare the new coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.
  • WHO officials say a lot is still unknown about the virus.
  • More than 600 cases have been reported, including 17 deaths in China.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has decided not to declare a public health emergency at this time after members met in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak.

“I am not declaring a public health emergency of international concern today,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

“Make no mistake: This is an emergency in China,” Ghebreyesus said. “But it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one.”

The announcement comes just a day after an initial committee meeting, in which officials said they needed more information to reach a consensus on whether to declare a global health emergency. The emergency declaration grants the WHO director-general certain powers, including the ability to issue recommendations for how countries should respond. 

The official declaration of a “public health emergency of international concern,” has been used during the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the Zika virus epidemic in 2015-2016. 

More than 600 cases of the new coronavirus have been reported, including 17 deaths. WHO reports that while 575 of those cases and all of the deaths have been reported in China, other cases have been reported in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. 

“We are aware of media reports of suspected cases in other countries, but those cases are still being investigated,” Ghebreyesus said. 

Ghebreyesus said those who have died from the virus had underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease that weakened their immune systems, but for most people it has caused milder symptoms.

The director-general warned that there’s still a lot that is unknown, such as the source of the virus, how easily it spreads and its clinical features or severity. He said it is likely there will be more cases in other parts of China and other countries. 

Hundreds of cases of the virus have been confirmed in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, home to 11 million people and where the outbreak is thought to have originated last month. The city has been placed on a partial lockdown, as well as nearby cities Huanggang and Ezhou. 

Beijing has also canceled major New Year celebrations that were set to kick off Jan. 25. 

Published on Jan 23, 2020