The leaders of the World Health Organization on Wednesday praised China’s response to the ongoing outbreak of a novel coronavirus that emerged there and has since spread to more than a dozen other countries, and said the agency would again convene its expert committee to weigh whether the outbreak amounts to a global health emergency.
There have been reports from China questioning whether the country has been accurately documenting all deaths tied to the outbreak and how prepared it was to handle an emerging pathogen. But WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who had just returned from meeting with Chinese leaders in Beijing, including President Xi Jinping, told reporters Wednesday that Chinese officials had shown they were committed to combating the transmission of the virus and demonstrated cooperation with other countries to stem its global spread.
“Its actions actually helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries,” Tedros, as he is known, said about China. He said he was “very impressed and encouraged by the president’s detailed knowledge of the outbreak.”
Tedros also announced that the WHO’s emergency committee would be meeting again Thursday, a week after he declined to declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, or PHEIC, based on the committee’s recommendations.
The committee was reluctant last week to call for a PHEIC (pronounced “fake”) because of limited spread outside of China. Tedros said he was reconvening the committee because three countries — Japan, Germany, and Vietnam — have reported limited human-to-human transmission of the virus, even as the vast majority of the roughly 70 confirmed cases outside China occured in people who had traveled from China.
“This potential for further global spread is why I called the [committee],” Tedros said in a tweet Wednesday.
The announcement from Tedros came as the confirmed case count in China approached 6,000, with 132 fatal cases. The spread has been centered in the city of Wuhan, where it’s suspected the virus jumped from an animal to people late last year.
So far, no deaths have occured in the 15 countries outside China that have reported cases of the coronavirus, which is known provisionally as 2019-nCoV.
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Declaring a PHEIC grants the WHO director-general certain powers, including the ability to issue recommendations for how countries should respond. Under a PHEIC, Tedros could, for example, urge countries not to close borders or limit trade — actions that are viewed as unlikely to stop disease spread and as likely to discourage countries from being transparent about outbreaks. Countries do not have to comply with WHO’s recommendations.
PHEIC declarations can also galvanize global attention to the need to address the outbreak. Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, who accompanied Tedros to Beijing, said a PHEIC could help coordinate the international response. Having nearly 200 countries make unilateral decisions with regard to travel and trade restrictions with China could be a “recipe for disaster” politically, economically, and socially.
WHO officials pointed to the still relatively small number of cases outside of China as a hopeful sign that the outbreak could be contained and transmission stopped.
“We must commit to doing that together,” Ryan said.
Ryan and Tedros both lauded China’s efforts to control the virus’ spread, with Ryan saying they had “never seen the scale, the commitment of an epidemic response at this level” and that China was “taking extraordinary measures in the face of what’s an extraordinary challenge.”
They highlighted how Chinese scientists very quickly isolated the virus and shared its genetic sequence publicly, allowing health authorities around the world to study the virus and build diagnostic tests for it. They said that it was China that alerted German officials to investigate what became the first determination of human-to-human transmission of the virus in Europe.
China has also agreed to allow a WHO mission of international experts into the country to assist with its investigation and response. The WHO is now working to put that team together, Tedros said.
The WHO officials spoke generally in their praise for the Chinese response and did not specifically address the massive quarantine of millions of people that China has imposed in areas where the virus has been spreading most. Some experts have questioned the effectiveness of such a policy, arguing that halting travel in and out of these locations lumps sick and healthy people together; could strike fear in people and dissuade them from seeking care; requires a massive amount of resources that could be used in the response in other ways; and could slow the transport of needed medical supplies.
U.S. officials have started screening passengers arriving from China at 20 airports. There have been five confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, all travel-related.
The onset of the outbreak is reminiscent of the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, also a coronavirus, which killed nearly 800 people. Coronaviruses typically spread to people from an animal source. Experts are still trying to determine how effectively the virus spreads among people, and whether people who are not showing symptoms yet are contagious.
Symptoms of the coronavirus infection include pneumonia, cough, and fever. Some infections have been reported to be mild, and scientists have documented at least one case of a person being infected with the virus but showing no symptoms.
The WHO has started collecting reports from countries with cases of the coronavirus that describe clinical information of patients.
“It’s very important that we collect this in a standardized way so we can better characterize what infection looks like, what disease looks like,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s head of emerging diseases and zoonosis.