WASHINGTON — A World Health Organization committee will reconvene Thursday to debate declaring China's widespread outbreak of a newly identified coronavirus a global public health emergency.
The same panel had twice declined last week to recommend a declaration of a "public health emergency of international concern" by the international health authority, which essentially would be a global call to action expected to trigger public health–driven trade and travel restrictions from China, as well as financial assistance from the World Bank.
The news comes as confirmed cases worldwide reached 6,000 patients and 132 deaths, the latter all in China. Only 68 cases are reported outside mainland China, in 15 countries, most of them travelers from the country. There are signs of person-to-person transmission of the virus in three of those countries — cases that are under close investigation.
"The whole world needs to be on alert," said Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergencies Program, at a Wednesday briefing. "We still have an opportunity to stop this virus."
On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing as part of a team investigating the outbreak. China has effectively quarantined around 50 million people in the epicenter of the outbreak, the central Hubei province.
"The fact that we have only seen 68 cases outside China is due to the extraordinary steps the government has taken," said Tedros.
WHO is focusing its efforts on preparing nations with fragile public health systems to screen and treat coronavirus patients to forestall a wider outbreak.
There is no treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus, which appears to spread by close contact with patients afflicted with coughing, pneumonia, and shortness of breath. About 20% of cases appear severe, and the fatality rate in China is 2%; however, those estimates are expected to decline as more mild cases are detected. Washing hands, avoiding contact of unwashed fingers with your face, and medical isolation of sick patients are the best tools for avoiding infection, according to CDC and WHO.
"The rapid acceleration in cases is of concern. It's essentially why the emergency committee is being reconvened," Ryan said. "What we need to do is decide, collectively as nations with China, what do we do next."