For the third time in one week, a World Health Organization Emergency Committee will meet to decide whether the new coronavirus poses a global health threat. The latest number of confirmed cases has risen to 7,700, including 170 deaths.
The two previous emergency meetings ended inconclusively. WHO experts were split on whether the spread of the coronavirus was large enough to constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. But this quickly evolving disease may change some of the doubters’ minds.
WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praises the strong response taken by the Chinese government to try to stop the epidemic. This includes the lockdown of Wuhan city, the epicenter of the disease and other cities in the country where the virus has been identified.
But he acknowledges that events on the ground in China and abroad are moving too quickly to be ignored. He says the emergence of any new pathogen with the potential to cause severe illness and death is of grave concern and must be taken with utmost seriousness.
"The continued increase in cases and the evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, are, of course, both deeply concerning. Although the numbers outside China are still relatively small, they hold the potential for a much larger outbreak,” he said.
So far, at least 70 cases of coronavirus have been found in more than a dozen countries, including the United States. All of these cases are being imported by travelers from China. An increasing number of countries are screening arriving passengers for infections and isolating them for the two-week incubation period.
Executive director of WHO health emergencies program, Michael Ryan, says the situation is very fluid and changing by the hour. He says the whole world needs to be on the alert now and take whatever action is needed to stop transmission of this deadly virus.
"We are at an important juncture in this event," he said. "We, as WHO believe that these chains of transmission can still be interrupted. This disease is spreading from person-to-person through personal contact between individuals.”
Ryan says the epidemic can be stemmed through proper hygiene, proper identification of cases, isolation and social distancing. He says the Emergency Committee will consider the merits of declaring a global public health emergency.
He says the WHO experts are likely to recommend a series of temporary actions for countries to undertake in a coordinated, measured fashion. He says efforts to end an epidemic are always more effective when countries work together.