TORONTO — A committee of world health officials said Thursday that “now is not the time” to call a global health emergency related to a new coronavirus that has left 17 dead and more than 500 others infected in China.
The World Health Organization made the announcement in Geneva at a press conference after the second meeting this week of a WHO emergency advisory committee on the new virus.
It was “a bit too early to consider that this event is a public health emergency of international concern,” said Didier Houssin, the chair of the emergency advisory committee, noting that there remained strong divisions during discussions.
“The emergency committee members were very divided, almost 50-50,” he said. Some felt the severity of the disease and increase in cases warranted a global health emergency, he added.
“Several others say that it is too early because of limited number of cases abroad and also considering the efforts which are presently made by Chinese authorities in order to try to contain the disease,” he continued. “Declaring a public health emergency of international concern is an important step in the history of an epidemic.”
A “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) must be an “extraordinary event” that poses a global risk and requires co-ordinated international action, according to WHO. Global emergencies have been declared before, including for the Zika virus outbreak in the Americas, the swine flu and polio.
PRECAUTIONS IN CHINA
Key to the announcement were recent extraordinary precautions already in place around China. Beijing announced it would cancel public celebrations of Lunar New Year, which is typically one of the busiest travel seasons of the year. Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak, has been placed on a lockdown.
“They’re making a very concerted effort in China to try and contain things. We’re making efforts worldwide. That’s the most important thing,” said Susy Hota, the medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at the University Health Network in Toronto, on CTV News Channel. The committee was likely attempting to strike a “balance” to avoid negative consequences, Hota added.
Global health emergencies often prompt foreign governments to restrict travel and trade to affected countries. In 2003, WHO issued travel warnings for Toronto during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which impacted the Greater Toronto Area economy at the time. Hotels in the area lost $39 million in revenue in one month, according to the Canadian Tourism Commission.
“It would be very similar for China,” said infectious disease physician Michael Gardam on CTV’s Your Morning. “People would definitely avoid the country.”
There are still a number of “unknowns” to be probed, WHO said at the Thursday press conference, including the possible animal source of the virus, its mode of transmission and the quality of containment measures.
The WHO announcement was encouraging for Neil Rau, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
“If they had said it was an emergency, it would mean they were more concerned,” he told CTV News Channel, adding that the announcement underscored the fact that the committee still needs more information on two key things:
First, how deadly is the virus? “What percentage of people who get this infection actually die from it? Based on my calculations it looks like it’s only about two per cent.”
Second, how contagious is the virus? “It’s looking right now that there are no chains of transmission beyond what we call a secondary chain,” he said. “In other words, a person has it, then a person in close contact with them gets it, but it doesn’t keep transmitting person-to-person after that.”
The committee added Thursday that they would be prepared to convene again “as soon as necessary” as more information emerges.
PREPARATION IN CANADA
A global health emergency likely would not have changed much in Canada, according to Gardam, much in thanks to 17 years of preparation for another outbreak after SARS.
“We learned a lot from SARS. We also went through the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. So there’s been a lot of preparation done quietly in the background,” he said.
In Canada, travellers from Wuhan are screened, others are put in isolation who have symptoms, and hospitals have stockpiled necessary equipment for an outbreak. Those procedures would continue, said Gardam. It’s possible that a broader screening process to include travellers from Beijing or China in general may be implemented, he added. But that is less about the declaration from WHO, and more about where the virus is linked to in China.
“We may start to broaden our screening criteria. As we do that, we’re going to start screening a lot more people,” he said.
On the ground, that process would have a major impact for health care workers. “That’s going to be quite disruptive for the running of our hospitals,” he said. “We’re already pretty full dealing with all the other respiratory viruses.”
With files from The Associated Press
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