WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The World Health Organization has officially declared the coronavirus outbreak in China a global health emergency, underlining the seriousness of disease that has now claimed the lives of more than 200 people and infected almost 10 000. A “public-health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) is the WHO’s highest level of alarm, which is only reserved for health situations that pose a risk to multiple countries and that require a coordinated international response.

The decision comes amid confirmation that cases have been identified of people who have not been in China since the outbreak was first reported in the Wuhan in China’s Hubei province.

Announcing the PHEIC, WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said his main concern was that the outbreak could spread to countries with fragile health systems.

The WHO says it acknowledges that there are still many unknowns and that cases have now been reported in five of its regions in one month, and human-to-human transmission has occurred outside Wuhan and outside China. 

“The WHO believes that it is still possible to interrupt the spread of the virus, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk. It is important to note that as the situation continues to evolve, so will the strategic goals and measures to prevent and reduce spread of the infection,” Tedros said.

He said the WHO would continue to provide all necessary technical and operational support to respond to this outbreak, including its extensive networks of partners and collaborating institutions, to implement a comprehensive risk communication strategy, and to allow for the advancement of research and scientific developments in relation to this novel coronavirus. 

Tedros stressed that measures to ensure rapid development and access to potential vaccines, diagnostics, antiviral medicines and other therapeutics for low- and middle-income countries should be developed. 

A PHEIC is defined as an extraordinary event which poses a public health risk to countries through the international spread of disease that requires an immediate coordinated international response.