Because a novel coronavirus has spread throughout China and jumped to a dozen other countries, the world is on red alert. But the World Health Organization (WHO) today, to the surprise of many global health experts, decided the outbreak does not merit the loudest siren it can sound, a declaration called a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “It has not yet become a global health emergency,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference in Geneva this evening. “It may yet become one.”
The decision by Tedros reflected a recommendation from an emergency committee, which over the past 2 days carefully reviewed information about the outbreak. The committee expected to issue a recommendation yesterday but it was so evenly divided on whether to declare a PHEIC that it requested this second day to review the most current data. Today, its chair, Didier Houssin, said opinions remained split. Those against a PHEIC declaration, Houssin said, contended that too few cases have surfaced outside of China—nine of 584 confirmed infections—and also rejected the declaration “because of the efforts presently made by Chinese authorities in order to contain the disease.”
According to an update that Chinese health officials gave to the emergency committee, 25% of the cases to date have had life-threatening disease and 17 people have died. But critical questions still remain about the severity of the infection with what’s now dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Researchers suspect that 2019-nCoV jumped from an animal to a human, but no animal source has been identified. Tedros also stressed that human-to-human transmission has occurred, but only within China.