The World Health Organization on Wednesday delayed a decision on whether to declare the ongoing outbreak of a novel virus that originated in China a global health emergency, with agency officials saying they needed more information to reach a consensus.
Following a meeting of a WHO emergency committee, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said he had asked the committee to continue the discussion Thursday.
“This is an evolving and complex situation,” said Tedros, as he is known. He said declaring the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, was a decision “I’m only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.”
The delay came as new cases were reported and the situation in China was rapidly changing.
Authorities said they planned to implement a travel lockdown in Wuhan, the city of 11 million people where the outbreak is believed to have started. Starting at 10 a.m. local time Thursday, public transit service is going to be suspended, and flights and trains from the city are going to be canceled.
Designating an outbreak a PHEIC grants the WHO director-general additional powers to issue recommendations for how countries should respond. While countries can ignore those directives, such an announcement can coalesce global attention on an outbreak.
Dr. Didier Houssin, the chair of the WHO emergency committee, said members were divided over whether to recommend Tedros declare a PHEIC. Ultimately, he said, “the committee felt it was a little too unprecise to very clearly state that it was time to suggest to the [director-general] that it was a PHEIC.”
Hundreds of cases of the virus, which has been determined to belong to a family called coronaviruses, have been confirmed in Wuhan. Infections have also started to crop up around China. Health authorities have identified cases in people traveling from Wuhan to countries including Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and, as of Tuesday, the United States.
With millions of people expected to travel around the Lunar New Year holidays, which kick off this week, health authorities fear spread of the virus could accelerate. Countries, including the United States, are screening passengers arriving from Wuhan for symptoms of the infection, including cough, fever, and shortness of breath, and informing travelers about the signs of the virus to encourage them to seek out medical care if they become sick.
There have been 17 confirmed deaths related to the virus, which is known provisionally as 2019-nCoV. At least some of the patients who died had existing health complications when they contracted the virus.
North Korea has closed its border to foreign travelers, according to tour operators. Restricting travel and trade with a country dealing with an outbreak, however, is viewed as unlikely to stop disease spread and as likely to discourage countries from being transparent about outbreaks. The PHEIC designation would have enabled Tedros to urge countries not to close borders or limit trade.
Coronaviruses, which include SARS and MERS, typically spread to humans from an animal source. Many of the early cases of the novel coronavirus were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan that also sold game. But health authorities have confirmed that some infections have come through human-to-human transmission. They are still trying to determine whether spread among people is limited or whether it might be spreading in a sustained manner, meaning it easily passes from one person to the next and then onward. They are also trying to learn if people with the virus can spread it only when they are symptomatic or before symptoms arise as well.
The seafood market in Wuhan was closed Jan. 1, the day after Chinese health officials reported to the WHO a strange spike in pneumonia cases in the city. That allowed scientists to discover the novel virus.
The emergence of a global coronavirus outbreak from China is reminiscent of the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2003, which went on to kill nearly 800 people. The PHEIC designation (pronounced “fake”) was created following an update to the International Health Regulations after that outbreak.
The first PHEIC was declared for the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, and others have included the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak and the Zika outbreak in 2016. The WHO set up an emergency committee to assess whether MERS should be declared a PHEIC, but it concluded after meeting several times that the disease did not constitute a global health emergency.
There are currently two active PHEICs: the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the continued transmission of polio.
Helen Branswell contributed reporting.